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GPL whiz Moglen nails Web 2.0 O'Reilly on 'frivolous' charges

Blow to OSCON propaganda

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A Web 2.0 licensing discussion through the O'Reilly filter is meant to tackle a couple of things.

First, you're mostly meant to see that "open source" and the licenses surrounding open source software matter much less than they used to. Few people will ever look at SugarCRM or Alfresco's source code and even fewer will modify it, so who cares what restrictions surround these applications. In addition, Google could turn over all the changes it has made to open source code or, in fact, its entire code base, and you'd struggle to build a Google rival with the software unless you had a few billion dollars laying around to construct data centers and hire thousands of engineers with deep experience dealing with clustered boxes.

Then, of course, you have garbage like Wikipedia, which is O'Reilly's Web 2.0 version of open source knowledge. Who cares about the Wikipedia code? You're meant to concentrate on its network-enabled reach and data.

And, in fact, it's data that stands as O'Reilly's second "open source doesn't matter" Web 2.0 pitch. We should care more about controlling our information than code. You want to move away from Google? Fine. Google should let you take your information with you.

Inhospitable Moglen

"This whole Web 2.0 jargon tends to go along with an assumption which is, as a technical matter, we are concentrating power in a very peculiar way," Moglen told us in response. "The idea is that most computers don't do functioning software anymore. They are glorified boxes to run browsers in.

"As a technical matter of judgment, that is wrong."

As Moglen sees it, we've got a world filled with very powerful computers. The O'Reilly attendees alone have hundreds of laptops that provide horsepower a company such as IBM could only dream about a couple of decades back.

"I see a supercomputer in every room I enter," Moglen said. "I see computing power and application power and software forced to the network in a flood. Someone presenting the idea that this is all about concentrating that is either fooling himself or misleading us.

"This Web 2.0 boat is about this idea: the centralization of data and software is inevitable. Get yours now. That's not technically right and not actually respectful of the power of the communities we are building."

Critics have charged that Moglen and the FSF did not do enough to address the rise of software-as-a-service. The SaaS attack allows companies to avoid releasing changes to open source code by claiming that they're just running the software on a server and then shipping a service to the end user rather than redistributing the code. Open source licenses have tended in the past to require that you provide access to changed code if you redistribute it as a product. The new FSF-crafted GPL v3 (General Public License) avoids the SaaS conundrum.

Moglen defends this action, saying it's sometimes "difficult to respect rights without harming other peoples' rights." At the moment, a company such as Google or Yahoo! has every right to do with code as it pleases and should not face restrictions, according to the FSF.

Still, Moglen urged more discussion on this matter and thinks Google could do itself a favor by being more transparent about what open source code it does use and what it gives back to other users.

"I no more applaud obscurity than anybody else," he said. "I think it's great for businesses to be as transparent as possible, and I know some businesses more transparent than Google.

"In its present form, Google could not come to be without free software. We enable growth of an organism on this size and scale. Having enabled that growth, we are unfamiliar with what it means to live with an entity that big. Distrust comes from this unfamiliarity.

"My effort has been to say, 'You should be attentive to the diplomacy between you and the free world. That your intentions are good and money is green, I think people can see. But being diplomatic and using diplomacy widely is important too.'"

Back to Burger Boy

Returning to OSCON for a moment, we get the sense that Moglen's shot at O'Reilly was meant to disturb some shit and get people thinking again. Seriously, how much can one say about Second Life and Facebook?

Moglen confirmed as much, during a broader chat we had about waning fervor among the open source zealots – the ones apparently content with Chairman Tim's abandonment of free software.

"We might get all too comfortable sitting in that living room," Moglen said. "I think every once in awhile, you want to come to a show and raise the dust a trifle." ®

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