Eyes Above The Waves

Robert O'Callahan. Christian. Repatriate Kiwi. Hacker.

Saturday 23 January 2010


At LCA I found it harder to talk to people than I normally do at conferences, probably because a lot of people already seemed to know each other and I don't already belong to any of those cliques. The same was true at my first computer science conferences, but there I at least had connections to other students and faculty from CMU that I could leverage. At LCA I was often forced to initiate conversations with random people, which is definitely a good thing.

I went to several interesting talks, and some less interesting. Although I enjoyed the joke talks at the time, I think they probably weren't a good use of time. Some of the other talks were just reiterating things I already knew.

One talk that was really useful was the talk about Clutter. I had been wondering if we should be using Clutter somewhere instead of writing our own layers system, but listening to the talk and talking to Emmanuele afterwards, it became clear that would not work. One big design issue is that Clutter animation runs on the main GLib thread, synchronously with application processing (and that will be hard to change), whereas we eventually need to run animation on its own thread. Another big issue is that Clutter depends heavily on OpenGL whereas we need the option to use D3D on Windows.

Jeremy Allison's talk about Microsoft was good. We've feared Microsoft for so long it's become almost unfashionable, but I think Jeremy is right to keep reminding the free software community of the danger there. He talked about Microsoft's attempts to take over the Web, and kindly mentioned Firefox's role in pulling us back from that brink. He made the point (which I think is too often overlooked) that which company one works for is almost always an individual moral choice and we should hold people accountable for it ... we can't let people off the hook by saying "oh, the company I work for is just evil and I can't do anything about it". The focus of his talk was the suggestion that Microsoft is gearing up for an all-out patent war on free software. I don't know if this is true --- honestly, I expected them to do it long ago and I'm not sure what's been holding them back --- but we certainly do need to keep aware of the possibility. Jeremy suggested that Microsoft will promote "RAND" standards --- standards covered by patents whose licenses would require a "Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory" fee, which sound good except that for free software, any non-zero fee is a show-stopper. In fact, as I discussed later in my talk, RAND-encumbered standards won't fly in the traditional Web standards world --- e.g. CSS and HTML5. We have a very good situation there, where everyone understands that any suggestion that can't be implemented in Gecko (MPL/LGPL/GPL) or Webkit (LGPL) is simply a non-starter. However, we do face a very serious situation in video, where the licensing isn't even RAND, and possibly in other technologies such as touch interfaces. It was good to be able to use some of these issues that Jeremy raised as launching points for my talk.

I went to Jan Schmidt's talk about GStreamer. Although the talk wasn't super-interesting, during LCA I did have some interesting discussions with people about whether we should be using GStreamer as the basis of our implementation of HTML5 <video> and <audio>, like Opera is. For now I tend to think it still makes sense to do our own thing, since there's a bunch of stuff GStreamer has that we don't want, like filter graphs and a GLib dependency. But going forward, as we want to add functionality, I think it's definitely something we shouldn't rule out.

Another interesting talk was Andrew Tridgell on patent defence for free software. Most of it was basic stuff about patents that I already knew, but he made one very important suggestion, which was that we need to find a way for free software organizations to collaborate on patent defence by sharing legal information. Right now this is basically impossible; for reasons I don't understand, the legal opinions we get, we are required to keep secret. This makes us vulnerable to a divide-and-conquer strategy because we can't band together to work together effectively on strategy and to share legal advice to keep costs down. Some sort of legal hacking may be required to solve this problem.

Of course, one of the main purposes of conferences is to meet people, and I did. In particular it was great to meet more of the Xiph/Annodex people behind Ogg. It was also great to meet Carl Worth and talk to him about cairo and the layers work that we're doing for hardware acceleration.

The social events were so-so for me, largely because of the issues I mentioned at the beginning, except for the final Penguin Dinner, which was great. The show was amazingly good ... to be honest, I often suspect "culture on display"-style shows of being insulting to everyone involved, but Friday night's was just great. One nice feature of the dinner was that the food was very good and they put out food for every seat at the table, including the seat next to me where nobody was sitting, so I had a double helping of everything I liked. The only really annoying thing about the Penguin Dinner was the relentless fundraising. OK, Life Flight is a good cause, but we can give to good causes without being constantly harangued ... can't we?


"OK, Life Flight is a good cause, but we can give to good causes without being constantly harangued ... can't we?"
Well, as a haranguer on the evening, I apologise and I also agree with your sentiment. A question for Google employees, "is doing a little bit of evil ok in a good cause or not"?
Before the haranguing started we had about $500 committed over the whole week. By the end of the evening it was $33,000 - so sadly the approach works, as many a dodgy time share property sales person will tell you.
Robert O'Callahan
That's a good point :-).
Terry Cole
"legal opinions we get" could be regarded as the property of the lawyer who wrote them (or the law firm for which s/he works). Of course there's no copyright in judgements of the court, nor in statutes, but a legal opinion is neither.
From the legal ethics summer school class last year at Canterbury university, I'm guessing that any lawyer who allowed his legal opinion to be shared in this way would also be subject to sanctions from the bar ethics committee. After all, the bar is there to protect the interests of lawyers, and such sharing would threaten legal incomes.
But the ethics problem can be made to go away by stipulating in the contract for an opinion that you may share it with e.g. the FSF. There's precedent for this. The lawyer might still be in trouble later, but a lot won't care.
There's also a problem for lawyers to do with the fact that "Linux" isn't a corporate entity but lots of little persons. They are supposed not to act against the interest of other clients. If they provide an opinion to an umbrella organization they might well be in conflict with a trust obligation to someone else! There's entire books written about this, like Duncan Webb's "Ethics Professional Responsibility and the Lawyer", esp. chapter 7.
Chris Ward
You're not required to keep a legal opinion secret.
However, there is an advantage in keeping it to yourself, in that if you do keep it to yourself, then nobody can force you to disclose it to anybody.
Imagine you're trying to buy a house. You know how much money you can spend; the seller doesn't know how much money you can spend. You are likely to be able to negotiate a lower price if things stay that way.
Your bank knows how much money is in your account, and tells you. Provided you don't tell anyone, the seller cannot find out. No court will order the bank to tell, nor will they order you to tell.
It's the same with lawyers and their clients. It's a competitive advantage not to tell.
"the legal opinions we get, we are required to keep secret."
Nope. Privilege belongs to the client, not the lawyer. You're not bound to keep your lawyer's advice secret, even though your lawyer is. Tell the world if you want to. You won't be causing any trouble for your lawyer either.
Sadly, under US law the lawyer probably does retain copyright on his written opinion (unless he's a full-time employee of yours). You can probably still share it under fair use principles, and you can certainly share summaries of it. But your primary defence here is that lawyers who sue their clients for stupid reasons soon run out of clients.
Lawyers are either "giving legal advice" or "NOT giving legal advice". They are responsible for "legal malpractice" if their advice is wrong/inappropriate.
So it basically comes down to the legal equivalent of not sharing medical prescriptions with other people. Without actually getting all the facts from someone, there is no guarantee that advice that is appropriate for one person/group/organization is appropriate for someone else.
This is why they don't want you to share a legal opinion. It is for you, given your circumstances. It might be different if your circumstances were slightly different.
There is the Open Invention Network that already does such kind of a thing, although not complete.
It acquires patents and licences them royalty free.
Maybe collaborating with the Free Software Foundation, the Gnu, OIN and other interested parties to have some sort of free legal advice information center could be a good possibility?
Wikibooks already has books on legal stuff, maybe those books can be looked after and put in the spotlight? The developers need an entity where they can go to find information about their legal needs more than scattered resources. Because it can be hard to impossible to find the right information if everything is scattered on the internet.
"We've feared Microsoft for so long it's become almost unfashionable"
I suspect that didn't just happen by accident. First you get some random comments on blogs 'oh microsoft isn't so bad ...', then some along the lines of 'oh only fools use that M$ thing, use the real name', and well when suddenly everyone is scared to say what they think.
"Another interesting talk was Andrew Tridgell on patent defence for free software"
Do you have such patents in NZ? If not, why is everyone giving up their sovereign rights to foreign laws? If the USA wants to punish it's citizens to letting things end up like this, then let it, but the rest of us should be free to benefit from the world our ancestors built.