GPLv2 or Later

January 6, 2007

If you ever released software under the GNU General Public License you are probably familiar with this formulation:

This program is free software; you can redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation; either version 2 of the License, or (at your option) any later version.

While this is not part of the license itself, the Free Software Foundation recommends the use of this formulation when releasing programs under the GPL. Paragraph 9 of the license explains why the “or later” clause is useful,

The Free Software Foundation may publish revised and/or new versions of the General Public License from time to time. Such new versions will be similar in spirit to the present version, but may differ in detail to address new problems or concerns.

and what it precisely means for anybody using a program released using this clause:

Each version is given a distinguishing version number. If the Program specifies a version number of this License which applies to it and “any later version”, you have the option of following the terms and conditions either of that version or of any later version published by the Free Software Foundation. If the Program does not specify a version number of this License, you may choose any version ever published by the Free Software Foundation.

And while the GPL FAQ gives more detail on the reasons developers would want to follow this recommendation, there is still a plenty of confusion surrounding this clause.

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Latests Web News

October 29, 2006

The Browser Wars 2: The Empire Strikes Back
Both Firefox 2 and Internet Explorer 7 are now out, and the browser wars have started again. More friendly than ever before, the new browser war is great news for the users and even better news web developers who had to live with the countless bugs of Internet Explorer 6. Not that Firefox is bug free though, it took them three years to fix what was a show stopper on the Mac. BTW., if you ever wanted to do me a favor, please vote for these five open Firefox bugs: 293581, 305859, 276431, 231179 and 272288.

Renesis Reloaded
Renesis, the (maybe too) promising SVG viewer is still alive and under heavy development. When their parent company lost interest in SVG, most of the Renesis developers have gone outside and formed a new company – Emia Systems – located in Regensburg, Germany. They have since then bought the rights and everything on Renesis from their previous parent company.

I expect it will take a long time before it is officially released, especially on platforms other than Windows (it’s .NET), but after Adobe buying Macromedia, this is probably our only chance to finally have a solid, multi-platform, multi-browser SVG plugin. And they might even make the player open source.

STIX Fonts: Always Coming Soon
The STIX Fonts project is aimed at creating a free font to cover an important part of Unicode — i.e. a free pan-unicode font. Since the project was started more than ten year ago it was always “coming soon”, but this time it really looks like they have almost done it. A beta test is expected to take place during the next months.

You might wonder why is this so important, when commercial pan-unicode fonts like Microsoft’s Arial Unicode have existed for years. Well, the commercial part in the last statement tells it all. The only free enough (shareware) pan-unicode font that covers all mathematical symbols is Code2000. And while Code2000 can display these symbols reasonably well, the modest 5$ license fee is only for supporting James Kass, it’s generous creator, and Code2000 is overall an astonishing achievement with its more than 60000 glyphs, there is a small problem. The focus with Code2000 was on coverage rather than high quality, and the STIX Fonts would cover exactly that, while being totally free for everybody.

Finally, you might also wonder why do I care about this. Quite simple, the STIX Fonts would cover all symbols needed to draw LaTeX and MathML formulae for sMArTH, our open source online equation editor.

HTML Back from the Grave
The W3C recently decided to restart work on HTML and “incrementally evolve it” to a point where it’s easier and logical for everybody to transition to XHTML. This means that the transition from HTML to XHTML is not going well at all, with tools and developers alike producing bad mark-up (“tag soup”). It also means that the voices of the people supporting WHATWG were finally heard, which is of course a good thing (on the other hand this does not make WHATWG right when promoting “HTML5” instead of XHTML), and the new developments seem to be positive.

However, in my opinion, in their quest to “evolve” their standards, the W3C could become an obstacle for their adoption. It seems evident that it is impossible to make something a true standard (adopted by the wide majority), when you make it a moving target at the same time. So maybe the W3C should concentrate on making higher quality standards for which they gather more community support before releasing, rather than releasing poor standards often, and fixing things that are not really broken. “Release early, release often!” is good practice for (open source) developers, not for standard bodies. Multiple incompatible versions are already a problem for HTML, so do we really need more? And do they really expect that continuing support for HTML won’t harm the adoption of XHTML?

So what might have been an alternative solution? Now I really don’t know any more. When I first posted this I thought that deprecating HTML and XHTML Transitional entirely (and maybe removing the validators for them, they are poor anyway) in favor of XHTML would have been an alternative. Then whoever would still want to publish “tag soup” online would not adhere to any standard, and whoever wants to render “tag soup” in a browser would not adhere to any standard — this is the current situation anyway, and it’s quite unlikely to change. However, maybe this could have been an incentive for everybody (web developers, web publishing software developers and web browser developers) to go away from “tag soup” and towards something more “meaningful”. Maybe I am wrong, but I don’t think that they can built their semantic wet dreams by having “tag soup” as a foundation. But well, who cares about their semantic dreams anyway? At least not me. Not any more.

[Edited the last paragraph: 2006-10-31]


Technologies for Digital Restrictions Management

January 8, 2006

In March 2005 I wrote about DRM and what it means for our freedom and now I decided to publish a more technical sequel. Back then I was outraged by the fact that Intel added a new DRM feature (DTCP-IP) to its dual-core processors. Why is that you may ask? Well … traditionally DRM means ways to restrict the use of copyrighted digital media content like music and movies. However, the DRM umbrella is broad enough so that it can cover any technology that can be used to control and restrict the use of “digital media” — computer software included. Having a DRM-enabled processor together with a DRM-enabled operating system could mean that:

  • only “blessed” (i.e. certified) applications will be allowed to run (supporters will motivate this my the need to stop viruses and worms)
  • encrypted documents can be opened only with the “blessed” Microsoft Office
  • Sites like MSN or Yahoo.com can be accessed by the “blessed” IE7 and no other will be able to fake it (enforced through cryptographically strong digital signatures)
  • an application developer could enforce that his applications work under on a certain operation system with little chance for the users to fake it
  • projects like WINE and VMWARE will have to break/fake encryption keys to work and this will render them illegal in many parts of the world US included (DMCA)

Well, it is needless to say that this would mean a lot of money for the established monopolies like Microsoft and Intel and disaster for users and their freedom. Richard Stallman predicted this evolution several years ago in essays like: Can you trust your computer?:

“Treacherous computing puts the existence of free operating systems and free applications at risk, because you may not be able to run them at all. Some versions of treacherous computing would require the operating system to be specifically authorized by a particular company. Free operating systems could not be installed. Some versions of treacherous computing would require every program to be specifically authorized by the operating system developer. You could not run free applications on such a system. If you did figure out how, and told someone, that could be a crime.”

So these technologies are really going to happen, one little step at a time and DTCP-IP is one of these little steps. I will discuss next the DRM technologies that Intel has implemented so far and the technologies that are planned for the near future.
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Digital Restrictions Management and Treacherous Computing

May 29, 2005

It is long since copyright enforcing institutions exceeded the limit of decency in their “holly war” against piracy. They arrived to a point where they are calling “intellectual property” infringement “a crime” and children are thought that “piracy funds terrorism” [1][2]. Maybe these absurd arguments are enough to pass some bills through the US Senate or further terrorize the middle-class American citizens, but I always thought that to the rest of us they were just nonsense and filthy lies.

Apparently I was so wrong. These lies actually did manage to pass a very controversial law entitled the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the US Senate, which criminalizes production and dissemination of technology that can circumvent measures taken to protect copyright, not merely infringement of copyright itself, and heightens the penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet. And if this is not enough the US Senate is looking to pass the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA) that would be even more restrictive than the DMCA. It would prohibit any kind of technology which can be used to read digital content without Digital “Rights” Management (DRM). Unfortunately these victories for copyright-owning interests (publishing, film, music and major software companies) over the copyright users’ interests are not common only to the US. In Europe the EU Copyright Directive comes close enough to the US DMCA although many aspects are not specified in the Directive and and depend of each EU member’s “implementation”.

Content publishers argue that DRM technologies are necessary to prevent huge revenue losses caused by illegal duplication of their works. Even though this argument is also questionable I will accept for now that copyright holders are affected by piracy. What I find dangerous is the ease with which civil liberties are sacrificed just to protect copyright. With DRM the users are no longer in charge of how they use the media: they are not able to make full use of devices they rightfully own, they are not able to make legal copies for backup purpose and they are not able to quote or make compilations under the right of fair use.

However, the DRM lobbyists don’t limit their influence to the distribution of copyrighted music or movies, they are starting to become more concerned with computing. The DRM umbrella is broad enough so that it can cover any technology that can be used to control and restrict the use of “digital media”. No, DRM is not about rights, but about restrictions, so a much more appropriate term for it is Digital Restrictions Management.

Now back to computing, something big has just happened: Intel has secretly added DRM features to its newly released dual-core Processors [4][5][6]. They will most likely try to ruin our freedoms under the pretext that will stop non-signed drivers, viruses, piracy, terrorism, drug smuggling and cancer. Well, as you might imagine, none of these will happen, but what might happen is that both Windows and Intel will strengthen their monopolies by destroying interoperability. And if all goes well for Intel the other processor producers (AMD, IBM, nVIDIA, ATI, Sony, Transmeta, HP are all members of the “Trusted” Computing Platform Alliance) might start adding DRM to their chips too. The wonderful dreams of free software and civil rights in cyberspace will be things of the past then, optimistic prophecies that never came true.

If you are worried about your digital rights, here are some places you might want to visit:

  1. Electronic Frontier Foundation – a nonprofit group of passionate people working to protect your digital rights.
  2. Trusted Computing FAQ
  3. AgainstTCPA.com – Computers and Internet gave you freedom. TCPA would TAKE your FREEDOM.
  4. Anti-DMCA.org – Corporations, we’ve had enough. Take back the Net!
  5. Can you trust your computer?, Richard Stallman, 2002
  6. The Right to Read, Richard Stallman, 1997
  7. Free Culture, Lawrence Lessig, Basic Books, 2004 – How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. Available for free download.
  8. Beyond Fear, Bruce Schneier, Springer, 2003 – In his latest book, security guru Bruce Schneier explains how security really works. More than this he invites us to take a critical look at not just the threats to our security, but the ways in which we’re encouraged to think about security by law enforcement agencies, businesses, and national governments and militaries.