Aargh, after 15+ years M&G finally gets free software.

During the height of the transition, I submitted an article about software piracy to the Weekly Mail. Needless to say it was rejected by technology editor Arthur Goldstuck and no reason was given. The polemical piece, written in an age before pervasive Internet and P2P championed the cause of free software in the face of piracy and dangerously played with the pirate mythology, casting such advocates as heroes rather than anti-capitalist bandits. As Karl Kraus would have put it: And now, only Piracy will be permitted.

Speaking about piracy today without also declaiming about free software and the open-software movement is, in hindsight a bit like quoting Adam Smith whilst forgetting Das Kapital. Capitalism is not served by ignoring its critics, and neither is journalism in South Africa. Yet almost two decades later, the reconstituted Mail & Guardian is attempting to win back confidence with South Africa’s youth, by publishing a one-sided pro-piracy confabulation by an anonymous author which repeats many of the same mistakes of the prescient article which was eventually published in the final edition of Kagenna magazine.

Fact remains, the first instance of free software advocacy and no holds barred discussion about piracy anywhere in South Africa occurred whilst I was at South. The exact same arguments used by today’s tragically hip anti-DRM intellectuals appeared in the newspaper under my own byline. There was no sense in anonymity. As journalists we were all targets of state-sponsored terrorism and corporate dirty tricks.

The struggle weekly situated in the heart of Cape Town’s coloured community exceeded the Weekly Mail, not in volume but in its majesty of open discourse. Despite this, the subject was considered taboo by the white elite who owned newspapers read by IT specialists and the nouveau riche who could afford to buy software.

South Africa has a terrible track record of censorship. Today we might have a clause guaranteeing freedom of speech and freedom of communication, but corporate interests and sponsor representation at boardroom level dominate the mass media and circumscribe our discussion about topics which impact on the future. The Mail & Guardian is one of the worst offenders. Having struck out against copyleft and the Creative Commons in a debacle involving its failed Amagama website, the mandarins at the Guardian are now merely face saving by cynically backing the inevitable rise of free culture around the planet. Too late to trumpet the joy of digital file sharing in an open-source universe and the realignment of Intellectual Property as opposed to open piracy and P2P?

The one-sided debate, or rather total lack of debate on the subject, can only be seen as a conspiracy on behalf of big business and corporate interests. The Mail and Guardian has a decidedly selfish agenda. What Paulina Borsook would term cyberselfishness is merely being played out under the guise of a pro-piracy ventilation which when putsch comes to shovel is all about South Africa’s fashion conscious new digital elite, who can ignore the demands of the masses for free and open source communication, while destroying Intellectual Property as we know it.

What is actually achieved by publishing anonymous texts promoting piracy? Surely the issue is Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) under the GPL licensing scheme which makes such sharing legal, in particular the rise of digital culture and the creative commons, influenced as it is, not by the tragi-comic “heroes of capitalism” or “free enterprise gurus” such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Wozniak, but rather the cultural emergence of dyed in the wool leftists and counter-cultural icons Richard Stallman, Cory Doctorow and Eric S Raymond.

After succumbing to Microsoft propaganda and Apple-induced design masochism, are the faceless pundits behind the M&G cultural desk waking up to the latest impulse in our culture or merely resurrecting a forgotten cause?

Turning the discourse of free and open source software into a cloak and dagger debate about digital redistribution, whilst hiding behind a veil of anonymity merely reinforces the stereotype of the pirate or “hacker”. Remember those unsavoury types conjured up by the new media during the eighties? Computer libertarians and cyber-anarchists who refused to buy into legally dubious EULAS, blatantly unfair Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) and fringe Intellectual Property permits were all too often cast as law-breaking hooligans who merely wanted to steal other people’s property.

As I vainly attempted to explain in my 1991 article published by South, “Technology has outstripped notions of private property and computer software confronts us with a moral dilemma: how do we treat property which has no physical form and which can be infinitely reproduced?” In any event anarchists (as well as libertarians) would seek a society based upon voluntary aid, mutual benefit, community cooperation and non-aggression, as opposed to the violent self-serving and naked aggression inherent to capitalism and its changeling herald, piracy.

This kind of rhetoric was greeted by Goldstuck and others as if I was talking down from the Moon, demanding free space-dust for a lunatic minority. It is therefore exceedingly ironic and poetic justice that the person going by the pseudonym Anon P Rate should start by questioning the very label which has been attached to the act of piracy: “Call me whatever name you want. I’m doing it all in the name of digital redistribution.”

Advocates of a realignment of property rights in the digital age have a real problem on their hands. If they advocate anything more than file-sharing they are denounced as evil commies. If they see anything more in Open Source than digital redistribution, they are politely shown the door, never to be seen again. Yet it is piracy which is at the heart of the capitalist system. The urge to appropriate and privatize virtual as well as non-virtual assets, whether by repurposing content, appropriating code or feeding off electrical energy circuits, satisfies our libidinal desire for personal power as well as greater control and wealth. In short avariciousness. This is surely the very essence of the artificial freedom behind capitalist discourse and the simulacra of property rights?

It is an anarchist understatement to say like Bakunin: All property is theft. Yet this is precisely what property represents at the end of the day. So much of who we are as a species is governed by property and our lack of it. Without property law we would all be left in a brutish jungle in which might makes right or would we simply turn into permanent daytrippers in a pirate utopia? Or better yet, why not true communism in a world in which labour is freed up by a work-force of robotic (and inherently digital) servants?

When what’s yours becomes mine and who we are in terms of property breaks down, who gets to differentiate where You and I begin and end? How is the social contract informed by the evolving public domain and what is often referred to as the “tragedy of the commons”? It is far wiser to explore the limits of our online community and its shapeshifting social mores caused by the Internet’s nuanced cultural boundaries on our own terms, than to import the empty rhetoric of the newswires.

If the author/s had bothered to do their homework they would at least distinguish between appropriation and outright theft, free as in freedom and free as in beer. But shiver me timbers, there seems to be a whiff of pirate outlaw in the air, a stench which is remarkable considering all the years which have passed since I first wrote about software piracy.

Whether in terms of the increasingly popular GPL3, BSD & CC license schemes or our altered concepts of the public domain and intellectual commons which inform the new resources and consciousness of our age, or by as yet indeterminate and contrived means still waiting to be discovered, the truth deserves to be told.

How for instance does one distinguish between what Lawrence Lessig refers to as a rivelrous resource and a non-rivelrous one? Is rivalry something which is culturally innate along with the need to compete? Or are we sharing because we sense, perhaps at the very back of our minds, that competition is no longer important in an age of infinite reproduction and instant duplication?

When I entered the Weekly Mail newsroom back in 1992, it was with a wild story about a magical duplicating device called the personal computer.

“The twentieth century has brought with it a new type of criminal, the software pirate. Let us consider this high-tech animal,” began the spiked piece, which Goldstuck now reckons was “rejected because it was not good enough.”

I could just as easily rock Goldstuck’s world view today with a true but fantastical essay on the biological printer. A novel device which is capable of “printing” human organs from DNA. In all likelihood, I would again be shown the door, not because Goldstuck is evil, but because in today’s information age, the vast majority of well-meaning individuals like him choose to remain ignorant.

I therefore challenge the Mail and Guardian and its current technology writers to have the balls to stand up and be counted. Hiding behind a /nom de plume/ in this day and age, whether for scientific or intellectual curiosity is not only cowardly, it is an insult to those who have had the grace to step forward in the interests of humanity without fear of the repercussions.

Freedom Toaster, a brave step forward for open access

Freedom Toaster
Freedom Toaster

The open-source movement spawned by open-access has come full circle. Now well-known Gnu-Linux distributions such as Redhat-Fedora are being given away at software kiosks, and the Freedom Toaster project sponsored by the Shuttleworth foundation is just one of many initiatives to get free and open-source software into the hands of the masses.

Acting on a suggestion made by members of a local community Ubuntu user group, or LoCo, I went with CDs in hand to a post manned by the department of trade and industry.

At a convenient central city location, (142 Long Street), I asked the attendent in charge to point out the toaster I had viewed previously in a spanking new brouchure handed out by Freedom Toasters.  There before me stood the machine, just as the brochure described. With a touchscreen and menu that took a little getting used to, nevertheless, despite the awkwardness, I managed to burn a Project Gutenburg CD as well as a copy of Edubuntu, the eduction-focused version of Ubuntu.

It strikes one as shocking that we don’t have more Freedom Toasters readily available, or similiar dare-do, blue-sky tech solutions, each packed with collections of open-source, or creative commons video, music and texts available. Something to consider purchasing for the local library?
Brushing aside all the rah-rah advertising propoganda cooked up by the agency responsible for designing the street-level distribution mechanism for Linux and Linux-Ubuntu, one wonders if the public will ever wake-up to a little known fact that Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distributions around?
That’s right, South Africa’s own is now competing with the rest, at least in the off-beat world of Linux, in which technical wiz-kids mingle with computer geeks, software nerds and the odd activist-hippy.
As a zippy (somebody with zen in their stride, with a hippy right brain and a techno left-brain) I want a Wikipedia CD collection and access to the Libravox library, Internet Archive and Creative Commons. Please sign me up as the next service provider. David Robert Lewis, collected works, DVD.

Why software should not have owners – Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman
Richard Stallman

Digital information technology contributes to the world by making it easier to copy and modify information. Computers promise to make this easier for all of us.

Not everyone wants it to be easier. The system of copyright gives software programs “owners”, most of whom aim to withhold software’s potential benefit from the rest of the public. They would like to be the only ones who can copy and modify the software that we use.

The copyright system grew up with printing—a technology for mass production copying. Copyright fit in well with this technology because it restricted only the mass producers of copies. It did not take freedom away from readers of books. An ordinary reader, who did not own a printing press, could copy books only with pen and ink, and few readers were sued for that.

Digital technology is more flexible than the printing press: when information has digital form, you can easily copy it to share it with others. This very flexibility makes a bad fit with a system like copyright. That’s the reason for the increasingly nasty and draconian measures now used to enforce software copyright. Consider these four practices of the Software Publishers Association (SPA):

  • Massive propaganda saying it is wrong to disobey the owners to help your friend.
  • Solicitation for stool pigeons to inform on their coworkers and colleagues.
  • Raids (with police help) on offices and schools, in which people are told they must prove they are innocent of illegal copying.
  • Prosecution (by the US government, at the SPA’s request) of people such as MIT‘s David LaMacchia, not for copying software (he is not accused of copying any), but merely for leaving copying facilities unguarded and failing to censor their use.

All four practices resemble those used in the former Soviet Union, where every copying machine had a guard to prevent forbidden copying, and where individuals had to copy information secretly and pass it from hand to hand as “samizdat”. There is of course a difference: the motive for information control in the Soviet Union was political; in the US the motive is profit. But it is the actions that affect us, not the motive. Any attempt to block the sharing of information, no matter why, leads to the same methods and the same harshness.