Chad Perrin: SOB

28 June 2006

MS: Freedom is Slavery; FSF: Slavery is Freedom

Filed under: Cognition,Geek,Humor,Liberty,RPG,Security — apotheon @ 04:00

Many a Windows system administrator is learning about the Windows Genuine Advantage software on the job, much to their annoyance. It is one of the latest in a long series of ever-more intrusive, restrictive, and overbearing measures Microsoft is employing in its fight against “unauthorized” use of Microsoft Windows operating systems. WGA has been called “spyware”, “adware”, and “malware”, which of course are epithets Microsoft noisily (and noisomely) disputes — but ultimately, the only substantive disputation in any meaningful sense is the simple fact that Microsoft produced it and it is implemented within the operating system environment by the vendor, rather than by some third party.

Windows Genuine Advantage is at present in its testing stages of completion, essentially a beta release. It has been distributed as a “high priority” update by the Windows Update system, however, which means that millions of Windows computers have been forcibly added to the list of beta testers. Many security vendors and other third-party Windows software providers are now offering instructions and/or tools for disabling or removing the WGA software, though there’s still some question about whether that might eventually become a prosecutable offense under the DMCA.

WGA is, among other things, “antipiracy” software. It automatically validates the install of the MS software installed on your system when Windows connects to services such as Windows Update, which is necessary to maintain currency with security patches and bug fixes (or as close to current as Windows ever gets, a matter of some debate). Originally, it also “checked in” with Microsoft upon each system restart, though this behavior has been eliminated after Microsoft received a surprising volume of complaints from end users and corporate customers.

Now, Microsoft has gotten so much heat over the manner in which it has implemented this new “feature” that it is actually offering uninstallation instructions for WGA Notification, a component of WGA that uses annoying on-screen notifications to inform users that they are using “pirated” copies of Windows.

WGA is only one of the more generally visible measures Microsoft is taking. It has come after businesses such as Ernie Ball, the world’s leading maker of “premium guitar strings”, with guilty-until-proven-innocent licensing compliance audits that can cost a company exhorbitant sums even if they ultimately turn out to be in compliance. Sterling Ball, the CEO, made the decision that Ernie Ball would never use another Microsoft product, ever. It has worked out splendidly: day to day operating costs were cut, the migration was relatively cheap and easy (many company-wide migrations to a new Windows version are far more onerous), and there are no more licensing issues to gum up the works. Not everyone is so lucky, however. Often, victims of Microsoft’s go-to-court approach to customer service risk going out of business entirely, unable to comply even with the audit, let alone licensing demands, within the limits of their budgets — including an Australian charity organization trying to help kids learn, as mentioned in this article about Microsoft strong-arming Oregonian schools that haven’t done anything wrong.

All of this really should be something of a wake-up call to all those Microsoft advocates that were complaining about the (mythical) likelihood of Linux users getting sued over copyright infringement in the Linux kernel — a bogeyman that was given grotesque, counterfeit life during the early stages of SCO‘s litigative attempts to stay financially afloat by profiting off others’ misery after discovering its legitimate business interests aren’t so profitable. The chances of getting smeared in court by Microsoft for making the mistake of being one of its customers (even indirectly) are thus far proven to be far greater than those of attracting any copyright or patent infringement suits for using open source software.

On the other hand, there’s the title of this entry. Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation has begun trying to impose rules for what sort of software you’re allowed to write with the development of its upcoming v3 of the GNU General Public License, more commonly known as the GPL. Draft versions of the new GPL “improve” upon previous implementations of the FSF’s IP policy by prohibiting DRM software — which, while odious and problematic, is a programmer’s mistake to make, and shouldn’t in my opinion be excluded from potential inclusion by open source projects. Worse yet, the FSF has started taking cues from Microsoft, and is issuing threats of litigation to small open source projects who are unlikely to be able to comply with overly strict three-year source code support clauses in the GPL (even in v2, though v3 becomes even more heavy a burden in this regard). I, for one, am highly unlikely to start producing my own Linux distribution any time soon, for fear that I might inadvertently find myself in noncompliance without the means of correcting the problem — especially considering that one must not only provide source code, but also for three years maintain the ability to provide source code for the previously released version of the software that is being distributed. Simply providing the source for the now-current version, or pointing enquirers after the source at upstream providers, isn’t good enough for the FSF any longer.

Linux, and GPLed software in general, is in danger of being priced out of the range of grass-roots support and development. Without a strong, powerful organization of some kind that is able to employ lawyers and maintain extensive software archives and high-availability servers and legions of archive maintainers, many Linux distributions risk becoming impossible to maintain. Expect, in the years ahead, to see a bunch of distributions (and even small-package software maintainers) to get frozen at the current version with source code provided on some low-bandwidth server for the next three years, after which the maintainers will cease supporting it.

This is the sort of problem that prompted me to create the Open Works License: it’s intended to address issues of legal restrictions that one sees with overzealous licenses such as the GPL. The venerable (though updated) BSD license, used unsurprisingly by the various *BSD operating systems (most famously FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD), provides the sort of freedom of use and distribution that is needed. (note: this paragraph has been edited to reflect some changes in circumstances)

In any case, with the appearance of the FSF’s recent zealousness in this regard, I’m taking another hard look at the advisability of shifting my efforts from Debian GNU/Linux to some flavor(s) of *BSD.


See for more about good licensing policy, as an alternative to both copyleft licensing and traditional copyright restrictions.


  1. I can only hope that Linus finds a different license to issue his kernel under, otherwise it could be the death of Linux.

    Comment by Alex — 28 June 2006 @ 10:48

  2. I don’t think it will be the death of Linux, by any means. It could certainly destroy much of the grass-roots culture of Linux, however. Ironically, this would turn Linux into what many (such as Red Hat, IBM, and a number of sysadmins who like using it alongside Windows servers) have been trying to make it for several years now: a business-oriented server operating system, and a unified end-user desktop interface without all the variation and room for personal preference that they seem to believe only serve to “confuse” other Linux users.

    If this sort of litigative minefield continues to grow in its danger for the “little guy”, only large, well-organized projects will be able to thrive. While large, well-organized projects are certainly capable of keeping Linux “alive”, that’s not all I’m interested in.

    I wonder how much GPL software (that can be effectively relicensed) will suddenly find itself being issued under other licenses in the near future.

    Comment by apotheon — 29 June 2006 @ 11:07

  3. You are quite possibly right, it won’t be the death of Linux, but I don’t see projects like Slackware and Gentoo living under such licenses. I can see Linspire (of which I have a legitimate copy of), Fedora, RHE, and all the big names, as you mentioned, thriving.

    And to think, I went to Gentoo to get away from distro-branding of the packages.

    Comment by Alex — 29 June 2006 @ 01:23

  4. How about creating some BSD/Lunix? That would be fun. :P

    Also, what makes you so sure that nobody will stick to vanilla gpl-2.x until they’ve hammered the bugs out of 3.0 (so they can use it when DNF comes bundled with Vista)?

    Comment by h3st — 29 June 2006 @ 08:10

  5. This isn’t only an issue of GPL v3. It’s an issue of the GPL as a whole. What has changed is that some unpleasant consequences of certain clauses in the GPL have become blindingly obvious in the course of these recent litigous threats by the FSF.

    GPL v3 is unlikely to have these “bugs” hammered out, anyway (regarding the increased strictness and anti-DRM), considering that as far as the FSF is concerned they are not “bugs” at all, but “features”.

    While I doubt it will happen, I would quite like to see Linus and Co. dual-license the kernel GPL and BSD, or something like that. Of course, while I’m wishing, I might as well go ahead and wish for it to be licensed CCD CopyWrite instead.

    Unfortunately, there’s a lot of software out there that is no longer relicensable or dual-licensable because there’s no single copyright holder and no (reasonable) way to track down all the contributors to get their consent for changing the licensing. Meanwhile, three-year source code availability maintenance is unrealistic for a lot of these things. As a result, I suspect we’ll start seeing more abandonware, only this time for legal reasons that cannot be circumvented by running with it and hoping nobody sues since the FSF seems intent on trying to make sure someone sues the crap out of anyone that comes near GPL-licensed code without devoting nontrivial resources to its long-term maintenance.

    Comment by apotheon — 29 June 2006 @ 10:08

  6. […] If you’ve been paying a bit more attention, you may have noticed that I’m not a fan of “intellectual property” law. If you’ve been paying even more, you’ve probably run across two essays here at SOB — MS: Freedom is Slavery; FSF: Slavery is Freedom and RMS and the FSF: one map, one flashlight, no ass in sight,/a> — that make it pretty clear I’m not the cheerleader for the Free Software Foundation and its intellectual pressgang of hangers-on. I find the GPL to be a particularly poorly-conceived, monomaniacal, sustained assault on corporate software, and useful for basically nothing else (including protection of software users’ interests, or even rights). […]

    Pingback by SOB: Scion Of Backronymics » the Software Liberation Front — 29 January 2007 @ 01:30

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All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License