Category: Tech

School of Wizardry

I've been listening to Jeremy Parish's interview with Robert Woodhead, the co-creator of Wizardry. It's a great interview and recommended.

I think about Wizardry sometimes. I first played it on the Mac.

If you pull up the original Wizardry on archive.org, or if you go looking for screenshots, here's the kind of thing you can expect to see:

Wizardry for Mac with lineart dungeon graphics
Via Hardcore Gaming 101, which has a great comparison of the various editions of the game.

You can get more detailed maze graphics by maximizing the window, but at 512x342 that comes at the cost of having to move other windows on top of each other to fit:

Wizardry for Mac with detailed dungeon graphics
I took this screenshot myself.

Of course, if you want to get fancy, you can try emulating a later version of MacOS with a higher resolution, and then you'll have plenty of room. Like these madmen here:

At any rate, I've gone back and tried some of the other versions of Wizardry, but I still think the Mac version is the best, with its GUI and its more detailed graphics. It's not perfect -- look how small the maze window is, even at its larger size; and why does the Castle window need to be visible when you're in the maze? -- but the game is well-suited for a point-and-click, drag-and-drop interface.

The first five Wizardry games aren't currently sold for modern systems, but GOG and Steam both sell Wizardry 6 bundled with DOSbox. So why not sell the Mac versions of the earlier games and bundle them with Mini vMac? I guess I'm not sure what the legality is of distributing old versions of the MacOS; they might need a license from Apple in addition to getting one from whatever company owns Wizardry these days.

I've also often wondered why nobody's ever remade the original Wizardry for modern computers, taking the Mac version as a base and adding quality-of-life improvements. The closest thing I've ever seen is a Japanese remake of the first three games called Wizardry: Llylgamyn Saga that was released for Windows (as well as PlayStation and Saturn) in 1998.

Wizardry: Llylgamyn Saga for Windows
Via Hardcore Gaming 101

Llylgamyn Saga is not quite what I'm talking about; I tried it a few years back and my impression was that it was a Windows port of a console game and its interface felt like it. It simply didn't handle as smoothly with a mouse as the Mac version.

What I'd like to see? Remake the original game. Use touchscreen devices as the primary platform. Copy Etrian Odyssey's mechanic of using the touchscreen to map the dungeon as you go, the way we had to use graph paper in the old days.

Etrian Odyssey Untold 2
Etrian Odyssey Untold 2
Via Jeremy Parish -- him again! -- at USgamer

Using half a phone screen wouldn't be so different from EO using the DS/3DS touchscreen. The biggest immediate hurdle I can think of is fat fingers: Etrian Odyssey is designed for a stylus; drawing with a finger would mean the grid squares would have to be larger. Pinch-to-zoom would be a good idea, or just a toggle to zoom the map in or out. Build to accommodate different resolutions; there's no reason a tablet user should be stuck with a map that's sized for a phone. Of course you could hide the map during combat, menu navigation, in town -- anywhere where it's not necessary. Use a point-and-click, drag-and-drop interface similar to the Mac version; when you go into town, you can drag-and-drop characters between the active party and the reserves.

Add some modern quality-of-life improvements, too. Obviously the weapons shop should behave like it would in a modern RPG: compare a highlighted weapon to the weapon a character currently has equipped. (If it'll fit onscreen, show how it compares to the weapons every character has equipped.)

And allow users to toggle the oldschool rules. Let them play with original inscrutable spell names, or with simple, plain-English ones. Allow them to disable characters aging on a class change, or the possibility of a teleport spell going wrong and permakilling the entire party. Hell, allow a mode where players can navigate through the maps they've made and point to the square they want to teleport to, or even set waypoints so they don't have to do that every time. Maybe even allow them the option of seeing monsters, treasure chests, and other points of interest before walking into them.

Once you've rebuilt the first game in this new engine, it wouldn't be hard to do the second and third. 4-7 would require more work but would be possible. Probably not 8, as it abandons the grid format in favor of free movement.

Hell, open it up. Since I'm dreaming anyway, I might as well say open-source the whole thing -- but failing that, at least release a level editor.

Maybe the best way to go about this would be for a fan group to start by creating a game that's Wizardry-like but noninfringing -- similar D&D-style rules, similar generic fantasy races, classes, and monsters, but different maps, spells, enemy behaviors, etc. -- and then, once they've released a finished game, make an offer to whoever it is who owns the Wizardry copyrights these days to port the original games to the new engine.

A man can dream.

Wii U Softmod Tips

I've spent the past week and a half softmodding my Wii U and ripping my library to it.

There are a few reasons for this -- the primary one being that the copy of Breath of the Wild that I bought used worked for about the first ten hours of the game and then quit reading.

Another reason is, it'll be nice to be able to put all my discs in a box somewhere and get some shelf space back.

The guide at wiiu.guide is a great walkthrough for softmodding your Wii U. But there are a few details I had to figure out myself, and I'm going to share them here.

First of all, here's the hardware I used:

A 1TB Western Digital Elements USB3 hard drive. This is excessive; I have 11 games installed on it and they only take up about 90 GB of space. However, I happened to have it lying around unused (I'd bought it for my grandma as a backup drive and discovered, when I went over to her house, that she already had a backup drive), so that's what I went with.

A 64GB Sandisk microSD card with SD adapter.

Here are a few things I discovered along the way:

It's probably a good idea to repartition and reformat the SD card before you get started. I found that mine had a few MB of unpartitioned space at the beginning, and I got an error with the NAND backup program saying it wasn't a FAT32 disk.

Also, make sure the FS type is C. That's FAT32. I used mkdosfs and wound up with 7 (ExFAT).

Something to note about the hard drive: I didn't need the Y-connector that wiiu.guide recommends, but I did need to plug it into one of the USB ports on the back of the console (I went with the top one). When I plugged it into one of the front USB ports, it would frequently hang on long file copies. When I plugged it into the top back port, it worked fine.

Copy all your save data before you rip any games. By this I mean, as soon as you format the hard drive to Wii U format, go into Wii Settings and Data Management, and copy all your save data. (It's safer to copy it than to move it; if you want to delete it from your NAND, wait until you've made sure it works first. A NAND backup and SaveMii backups are probably a good idea too, just to make sure you don't lose anything.)

This is totally counterintuitive, but here's how it works: save data on the NAND works for disc games (and, presumably, games stored on the NAND, though I haven't verified this), but games installed on the hard drive will completely ignore it. If you've got Breath of the Wild installed on your hard drive, and a saved game and a few gigs of updates installed on the NAND, then when you fire up Breath of the Wild it will behave as if it's being run for the first time. It will try to download updates, and start you out at the beginning. If you want a game that's installed on your hard drive to see your updates and your saves, then they have to be stored on the hard drive too, not the NAND.

And, even more counterintuitively, you have to copy the saves first. If you install the game on your hard drive and then copy the save data over, the save data will overwrite the game on the hard drive and you'll have to reinstall it. But if you copy the save data and then install the game, the game won't overwrite the save; the save will still be there and the first time you run the game off the hard drive, all your save data, updates, and DLC will be there, ready to go.

Hope that helps somebody. It would have saved me a lot of extra hours if I'd known that stuff before I started instead of having to figure it out for myself.

Android Without Google

In my last couple of posts, I've talked a bit about the drawbacks of iOS and Android, but acknowledged I've found the alternatives lacking. Ultimately, I went back to Android -- but not stock Android.

Android -- at least, the base OS -- is free/open-source software. As such, there are many different variations of Android available.

Replicant is the only Android variation endorsed by the GNU Project; it seeks to provide an Android experience with only free/open software. Unfortunately, it has drawbacks: it has a very limited number of supported devices, the most recent of which is the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3, which was released in 2013. Replicant itself isn't quite that outdated; the latest version is 6.0, based on Android 6.0 Marshmallow (2015). And even though Replicant itself is free, it still requires proprietary firmware in most cases.

I've ultimately settled on LineageOS, an Android distribution descended from the previous CyanogenMod project.

You can install Google Services and Apps (Gapps) on top of LineageOS, but on my latest installation, I opted not to do that. I get most of my Android software from F-Droid, a free software repository.

I do run a few proprietary apps; the Amazon App Store is one source, and there's a program called Yalp Store (you can get it from F-Droid) that lets you download apps from the Google Play Store without installing Gapps -- though keep in mind that does violate Google's terms of service.

Someone also recently recommended microG to me; it's a free re-implementation of Google Services. I haven't tried it out yet, but it looks promising.

All in all, I was surprised by just how easy it ended up being running an Android-based OS without Google's proprietary apps and services. That's easy for values of "easy" that include being comfortable flashing your phone, of course, but so far it's worked out pretty well for me.

I'd sure like to see one of those alternatives get a better foothold, though. More competition is good for everybody, especially if that competition comes from free software.

Android Alternatives

Yesterday I talked a little bit about Ubuntu Touch, a would-be alternative smartphone OS based on GNU/Linux (that is to say, the Linux kernel and GNU userland, as opposed to Android, which is based on the Linux kernel and Google's own userland).

There are other phone OS's out there, too.

Jolla's Sailfish is another GNU/Linux-based OS, based on Nokia's abandoned MeeGo platform. It's the most mature of the lot, but supports a limited number of devices. I haven't tried it because the port for my phone, the Nexus 5, hasn't been updated since 2015. But it appears to have pretty good support for Sony Xperia phones, and it runs Android apps through a compatibility layer, though my understanding is that that compatibility layer is proprietary, drains the battery significantly, and doesn't have full compatibility.

Other than iOS, Android, and, to a lesser extent, Windows Phone, Ubuntu Touch, and Sailfish, there aren't a lot of mobile OS's that are ready for prime-time. KDE's Plasma Mobile is still in early stages; the steps for setting it up on a Nexus 5 indicate that it's strictly for developers right now.

GNOME doesn't have much of a mobile presence at this time, either, though Purism has announced that its upcoming Librem 5 phone will feature a GNOME desktop (with Plasma as an alternative option).

There's also LuneOS, a fork of Palm/HP's webOS (which, like Android, is based on the Linux kernel but not the GNU userland). It's still early days too.

I also just ran across postmarketOS, whose homepage says "The project is at very early stages of development and is not usable for most users yet." (Boldface in original.)

One of the biggest problems facing all these projects is the proliferation of different Android devices, most of which rely on proprietary firmware for hardware support. There is a project in the works that should help with the hardware support issues (though not with the inherent problems of proprietary firmware); it's called Halium, and it should make development much easier for all these projects.

In the meantime, though? You're probably stuck with iOS or Android -- Apple's walled garden or Google's spyware.

There are ways to run Android without Google services or proprietary software. I'll get to that tomorrow.

The Sorry State of Smartphones

It's disappointing that the smartphone market has turned into a choice between two OS's: iOS's walled-garden approach where Apple decides what software you're allowed to run on the phone that you ostensibly own, and Android's spyware panopticon security nightmare.

There are a few alternatives, none of them very good.

A few months ago, I tried switching from Android to Ubuntu Touch. Canonical abandoned Ubuntu Touch a few months back, but it's still under development by a small community-based group called UBports.

Here's what I wrote at the time (originally posted on Brontoforumus, 2017-07-03):


It's a pretty different idiom from Android (no ubiquitous three buttons at the bottom of the screen, though their functionality is there; swipe from the left edge of the screen to get a dock, from the right edge to get a Windows 7-style list of open programs, and the Back button is handled at the app level), but I could get used to it, and the list of available apps seemed sufficient for my day-to-day use.

The only real problem was that the phone didn't work.

I fucked around with the settings for awhile but all I managed to accomplish was to change what it said under "carrier" from "Sprint" to "none".

So I decided to give LineageOS another shot. (Well, technically my first time using it as LineageOS, but I used it plenty when it was Cyanogenmod.) It appears that I've mostly fixed the Sprint issues I had with it before.

But I thought Ubuntu was pretty impressive, and I intend to give it another shot someday. Maybe once they finish updating it to a 16.04 base.


I should probably update my post about getting Sprint to work on LineageOS (then CyanogenMod); I need to update the title and the links, and add the last step that finally got it (mostly) working.

I've managed to do okay without Gapps, too -- but maybe I'll get to that another time.

Net Neutrality Roundup #2

Yesterday I discussed Ajit Pai's plan to dismantle the FCC's net neutrality regulations, his disingenuous justifications for doing so, and the inevitability of lawsuits challenging the change in court. We left off on Tim Wu's observation that Pai is doing this in opposition to the vast majority of public opinion.

The FCC comment period concerning the net neutrality repeal saw 22 million comments; it received a greater response than any other FCC proposal in history.

While Pai has openly acknowledged that he doesn't care about the quantity of pro-Title II comments, he has also, disingenuously, drawn a false equivalence between the number of pro- comments and the number of anti- comments. Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica notes:

Pai [...] released a "Myth vs. Fact" sheet that claims public comments to the FCC don't show significant support for net neutrality. Pai's office called it a "myth" that commenters "overwhelmingly want the FCC to preserve and protect net neutrality," arguing that fraudulent comments far outnumber legitimate ones.

That's true largely because the FCC imposed no real restrictions on comment uploads and took no steps to remove fraudulent comments from the record. But analyses of comments show that about 98 or 99 percent of "unique" comments oppose the net neutrality repeal.

That last link goes to an article by Jeff Kao at Hackernoon titled More than a Million Pro-Repeal Net Neutrality Comments were Likely Faked. Here are a couple lines from the abstract:

My research found at least 1.3 million fake pro-repeal comments, with suspicions about many more. In fact, the sum of fake pro-repeal comments in the proceeding may number in the millions. In this post, I will point out one particularly egregious spambot submission, make the case that there are likely many more pro-repeal spambots yet to be confirmed, and estimate the public position on net neutrality in the “organic” public submissions.

Kao goes on to chart the duplicate versus unique comments:

Chart of trends in FCC comments

Keep-Net Neutrality comments were much more likely to deviate from the form letter, and dominated in the long tail.

From this chart we can see that the pro-repeal comments (there are approximately 8.6 million of them) are much more likely to be exact duplicates (dark red bars) and are submitted in much larger blocks. If even 25% of these pro-repeal comments are found to have been spam, that would still result in more than 2 million faked pro-repeal comments, each with an email address attached. Further verification should be done on the email addresses used to submit these likely spam comments.

On the other hand, comments in favor of net neutrality were more likely to deviate from a form letter (light green, as opposed to dark green bars) and were much more numerous in the long tail. If the type, means of submission, and ‘spamminess’ of comments from both sides were equal, we would expect a roughly even distribution of light and dark, red and green, throughout the bars. This is evidently not the case here.

Kao has gone to more trouble than Pai to try and tell spam comments from legitimate ones. Indeed, New York AG Eric Schneiderman has accused the FCC of stonewalling his investigation into FCC comments using fraudulent names and addresses. And he's not the only one investigating:

Schneiderman is not the first to accuse the FCC of stonewalling investigations into the net neutrality comment system. The FCC's claim that the comment system was temporarily disrupted by DDoS attacks has received lots of attention, but the FCC hasn't provided all the records requested in several Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) requests.

The FCC also told members of Congress that it won't reveal exactly how it plans to prevent future attacks on the public comment system.

A FoIA request from Ars was denied by the FCC due to "an ongoing investigation."

US Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) criticized the FCC for failing to turn over its internal analysis of the DDoS attacks that hit the FCC's public comment system. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) requested an independent investigation into the DDoS attacks, and the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has agreed to investigate.

The FCC is also facing a lawsuit alleging that it ignored a FoIA request for data related to bulk comment uploads, which may contain comments falsely attributed to people without their knowledge.

So are there any other ways the FCC's terrible plan is vulnerable to litigation?

Why yes. Yes there are. Because it also prevents states from passing their own net neutrality laws.

And there's legal precedent stating that the FCC can't preempt state laws -- ironically, decided in a case where Tom Wheeler's FCC attempted to prevent states from passing laws against municipal broadband.

These are just some of the avenues of attack Pai has opened himself up to. The question isn't whether there will be lawsuits after the net neutrality repeal; it's how many and how soon.

Net Neutrality Roundup #1

Ajit Pai has announced, expectedly, that he intends to vote to kill the FCC's Title II net neutrality regulations on December 14.

As I've discussed previously, this was a foregone conclusion, but the point was never to change Pai's mind; there are, after all, two whole branches of government besides the one he serves in.

Tim Wu (the man who coined the phrase "Network Neutrality") discusses one of those branches in a recent op/ed in the New York Times called Why the Courts Will Have to Save Net Neutrality.

The problem for Mr. Pai is that government agencies are not free to abruptly reverse longstanding rules on which many have relied without a good reason, such as a change in factual circumstances. A mere change in F.C.C. ideology isn’t enough. As the Supreme Court has said, a federal agency must “examine the relevant data and articulate a satisfactory explanation for its action.” Given that net neutrality rules have been a huge success by most measures, the justification for killing them would have to be very strong.

It isn’t. In fact, it’s very weak. From what we know so far, Mr. Pai’s rationale for eliminating the rules is that cable and phone companies, despite years of healthy profit, need to earn even more money than they already do — that is, that the current rates of return do not yield adequate investment incentives. More specifically, Mr. Pai claims that industry investments have gone down since 2015, the year the Obama administration last strengthened the net neutrality rules.

Setting aside whether industry investments should be the dominant measure of success in internet policy (what about improved access for students? or the emergence of innovations like streaming TV?), Mr. Pai is not examining the facts: Securities and Exchange Commission filings reveal an increase in internet investments since 2015, as the internet advocacy group Free Press has demonstrated.

A popular argument I've seen from anti-Title II trolls on sites like Ars Technica and Techdirt is "Well if we need these rules, how did the Internet do so well before 2015?" (This rhetorical question is usually coupled with sarcastic remarks about former president Barack Obama.)

That question is disingenuous, for a couple of reasons. First, as Wu notes, that's the opposite of how FCC rules get passed and repealed. We already asked and answered the question of why we needed Title II regulations during the public comment period in 2014. The question isn't "Why did we need these rules in 2015?" It's "Why do we no longer need them in 2018?" It's the oldest forum troll trick in the book: "I'm not going to provide supporting evidence for my argument, I'm going to demand that you provide supporting evidence for yours, even though the burden of proof is on me."

The other reason the "How did the Internet ever survive before 2015?" question is disingenuous horseshit is that Pai's not merely rolling back FCC rules to pre-2015 levels, he's rolling them back to pre-2005 levels. Wu's article continues:

But Mr. Pai faces a more serious legal problem. Because he is killing net neutrality outright, not merely weakening it, he will have to explain to a court not just the shift from 2015 but also his reasoning for destroying the basic bans on blocking and throttling, which have been in effect since 2005 and have been relied on extensively by the entire internet ecosystem.

This will be a difficult task. What has changed since 2004 that now makes the blocking or throttling of competitors not a problem? The evidence points strongly in the opposite direction: There is a long history of anticompetitive throttling and blocking — often concealed — that the F.C.C. has had to stop to preserve the health of the internet economy. Examples include AT&T’s efforts to keep Skype off iPhones and the blocking of Google Wallet by Verizon. Services like Skype and Netflix would have met an early death without basic net neutrality protections. Mr. Pai needs to explain why we no longer have to worry about this sort of threat — and “You can trust your cable company” will not suffice.

So let's, just for a moment, play the trolls' game and explain why we need Title II regulations to protect net neutrality.

There's a convenient list of net neutrality violations making the rounds; I don't know where it originated, but I've seen variations on it in a couple of different places: by a poster named JoeDetroit on Techdirt and a poster named Happysin on Ars Technica. Here are both those versions of the list combined and lightly edited:

2005 - Madison River Communications was blocking VOIP services. The FCC put a stop to it.

2005 - Comcast was denying access to P2P services without notifying customers.

2007-2009 - AT&T was having Skype and other VOIPs blocked because they didn't like that there was competition for their cellphones.

2011 - MetroPCS tried to block all streaming except YouTube. They actually sued the FCC over this.

2011-2013 - AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon were blocking access to Google Wallet because it competed with their own wallet apps. This one happened literally months after the trio were busted collaborating with Google to block apps from the Android marketplace.

2012 - Verizon was demanding Google block tethering apps on Android because it let owners avoid their $20 tethering fee. This was despite guaranteeing they wouldn't do that as part of a winning bid on an airwaves auction.

2012 - AT&T tried to block access to FaceTime unless customers paid more money.

2013 - Verizon literally stated that the only thing stopping them from favoring some content providers over other providers were the net neutrality rules in place.

2014 - Netflix & Comcast sign a deal where Netflix will pay Comcast to stop throttling the service. The very next day, streaming problems vanish.

That is, needless to say, not an exhaustive list.

Meanwhile, there's another kind of forum troll, making the rounds like clockwork on every article I've ever seen on this subject: the "What does it matter? Pai's just going to do it anyway; he doesn't care what we think!" troll.

I've already responded to that argument at length (and up at the top of this post -- "two whole branches of government"). Wu reinforces my point:

Moreover, the F.C.C. is acting contrary to public sentiment, which may embolden the judiciary to oppose Mr. Pai. Telecommunications policy does not always attract public attention, but net neutrality does, and polls indicate that 76 percent of Americans support it. The F.C.C., in short, is on the wrong side of the democratic majority.

That's why people left comments on the FCC website. It's why people are writing articles protesting it now, and planning in-person protests for December 7. Lawsuits are inevitable, and clear and constant reminders that Pai threw out the Title II classification against public opinion makes his weak case weaker.

And that's not the only thing. Come back tomorrow for more.

The SFLC Tries to Terminate Conservancy's Trademark

In my last two posts, I've talked about the Linux Foundation's apparent disdain for the GPL (the license that Linux is published under, which allows derivative works but requires them to be published under the same license), and Eben Moglen's apparent souring on legal enforcement of the GPL. I mentioned that the Software Freedom Law Center is seeking to terminate the Software Freedom Conservancy's trademark, and that Bruce Perens believes that this is retaliation by the LF. So let's continue, shall we?

The Linux Foundation now represents corporate interests, not the community. The GPL is designed to protect the community. So there's some friction there right off the bat.

In fact, as I mentioned in the first part, the LF used to have two community representatives on its board, but terminated the position.

Why? Well, it happened right after the Software Freedom Conservancy's Executive Director, Karen Sandler, announced her intention to run for a seat. Looks like the Linux Foundation didn't like that. VMware certainly didn't, since Conservancy is currently funding a GPL enforcement lawsuit against it.

And, as noted in the previous post, Eben Moglen published an article arguing against GPL enforcement. That doesn't seem to have gone over well with the Free Software Foundation; he resigned his position as FSF General Counsel soon after. That's a hell of a thing, after nearly 25 years in the role.

Now, Moglen's SFLC has filed to terminate the Conservancy's trademark, stating that the marks are too similar and could cause confusion. This seems out of the blue; the SFLC started Conservancy, and legally represented it for years; if it were concerned about trademark confusion, it should have expressed those concerns eleven years ago.

Perens went on a bit of a tear about this; he submitted an article to Slashdot titled Software Freedom Law Center Launches Trademark War Against Software Freedom Conservancy, and has commented extensively on two articles at LWN, one quoting Conservancy's post and the other quoting the SFLC's response.

Perens believes the connection is clear: as the Linux Foundation has come to represent corporate members over the Linux community, it has become increasingly critical of the GPL. Eben Moglen and the SFLC, which is funded by the LF, still purport to believe in the GPL, but have become increasingly critical of legal actions enforcing it. The LF includes VMware on its board, and Conservancy is funding a GPL enforcement action against VMware; in light of these facts, it does not appear coincidental that the LF eliminated its community representative positions right after the executive director of Conservancy expressed an interest in running for one, and the Software Freedom Law Center suddenly became concerned that the Software Freedom Conservancy -- an organization which it started -- has a name that's too similar.

So how will this all turn out? I'm not a lawyer, but I think Conservancy is on pretty solid ground here. Of course, if Perens is right, then this isn't really about a trademark at all. And if Perens is right and the Linux Foundation really is out to punish Conservancy, then this action may not be the end of it.

The SFLC and Conservancy: A History

Yesterday, I went over how the Linux Foundation doesn't seem to like the license Linux is published under very much.

Bruce Perens, co-founder of the Open Source Initiative and founder of the Linux Standard Base (which led to the formation of the Linux Foundation), says it's worse than that, and that the Linux Foundation is now undermining GPL enforcement against its member organizations.

This is a complicated story, so strap in. I mean, if this sounds like something you're interested in. If it doesn't, then I don't blame you; come back on Friday, when I'll have about 750 words on April from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Still here? Okay.

The Software Freedom Law Center is funded by the Linux Foundation, and provides pro bono legal services and representation to developers of free/open-source software. Its chairman is Eben Moglen, who was pro bono general counsel for the Free Software Foundation from 1994 to 2016. Moglen has done a hell of a lot for free software over the course of the last 25 years.

In 2006, the SFLC launched the Software Freedom Conservancy, an organization that provides free financial and administrative services to free software projects. Today Conservancy represents 48 projects, notably including BusyBox, Git, phpMyAdmin, QEMU, Samba, and Wine. Conservancy is an independent entity and not part of the SFLC, though the SFLC represented Conservancy through 2011.

In 2007, the SFLC and Conservancy began GPL enforcement suits on behalf of BusyBox. BusyBox is a minimal bootable system that's in everything; if you're using a piece of consumer electronics that's more complicated than a microwave oven, there's a good chance it's got BusyBox in it. And a lot of those electronics companies don't bother to follow the GPL and release their source code modifications.

There's been some backlash against GPL enforcement in the years since. BusyBox's maintainer, Rob Landley, later regretted the lawsuits; he deemed them counterproductive, and said they hadn't helped BusyBox or any other project, they'd just convinced companies like Google to avoid the GPL and use permissive licenses instead.

Maybe so. But if nobody ever enforces the GPL, then it's meaningless. A mere suggestion.

Conservancy has continued its GPL enforcement actions. Currently, it's funding Christoph Hellwig's litigation against VMware in Germany. VMware distributes a modified version of the Linux kernel; Hellwig is a kernel contributor and, thus, one of the many copyright holders in the Linux kernel. (While many free/open-source projects require that contributors assign all copyright to a single rightsholder, such as Conservancy or the GNU Project, the Linux kernel does not; every single contributor to the Linux kernel maintains the copyright to the portion of the kernel they contribute, but licenses it under the GPL for anyone else to use.)

Eben Moglen seems to have soured on GPL enforcement. Last year he published an article in the International Free and Open Source Software Law Review titled Whither (Not Wither) Copyleft. His arguments are similar to Landley's: all these GPL enforcement suits are actually bad for the GPL, because they discourage companies from using the GPL at all.

Moglen makes the argument that litigation should be a last resort, and that parties should try to resolve their disputes amicably if at all possible. The thing is, I don't think anybody actually disagrees with that.

When has Conservancy chosen to sue, when there was any other path available? BusyBox v Westinghouse was a default judgement. Westinghouse didn't even bother showing up to court; I don't see how politely-worded E-Mails were going to get it to comply. Conservancy spent three years attempting to negotiate with VMware, to no avail; the lawsuit is a last resort. Whither copyleft? indeed.

Bruce Perens thinks the SFLC's recent trademark action is retaliation for Conservancy's enforcement action against VMware. I'll save the why for my next post. Tune in tomorrow, same Thad-time, same Thad-channel.

The Linux Foundation Hates Copyleft

It's been kinda weird, seeing the Linux Foundation slowly transform into an organization that is fundamentally opposed to the license Linux is published under.

But the Linux Foundation is in the business of turning a profit, and that's meant embracing corporate America -- even Microsoft is now a member. In fact, the board is overwhelmingly made up of corporate representatives now: Facebook, AT&T, Qualcomm, Cisco, VMware (we'll come back to them tomorrow), Intel, HP, Bitnami, Panasonic, Hitachi, Samsung, IBM, Microsoft (Microsoft!), Comcast, Huawei, NEC, Oracle, Fujitsu. There used to be two community representatives on the board, but they eliminated that position (we'll come back to that on Thursday).

Linux is published under the GNU General Public License. The GPL is what GNU/Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman calls "copyleft": if a piece of software is licensed under the GPL, then that means anyone else is free to access, modify, and redistribute the source code, provided that if they release a modified version, they publish it under the same license.

Corporations don't much like copyleft or the GPL. They like more permissive licenses, like the MIT License and the BSD Licenses, which allow them to take someone else's code, modify it, and not give their modifications back to the community.

Linus Torvalds, the man who the Linux Foundation is named after, gets this. FOSS Force's Christine Hall recounts his remarks at LinuxCon last year:

“I think that if you actually want to create something bigger, and if you want to create a community around it, the BSD license is not necessarily a great license,” he said.

“I mean, it’s worked fairly well, but you are going to have trouble finding outside developers who feel protected by a big company that says, ‘Hey, here’s this BSD license thing and we’re not making any promises because the copyright allows us to do anything, and allows you to do anything too.’ But as an outside developer, I would not get the warm and fuzzies by that, because I’m like, ‘Oh, this big company is going to take advantage of me,’ while the GPL says, ‘Yes, the company may be big, but nobody’s ever going to take advantage of your code. It will remain free and nobody can take that away from you.’ I think that’s a big deal for community management.

“It wasn’t something I was planning personally when I started, but over the years I’ve become convinced that the BSD license is great for code you don’t care about. I’ll use it myself. If there’s a library routine that I just want to say ‘hey, this is useful to anybody and I’m not going to maintain this,’ I’ll put it under the BSD license.

“Whenever licenses come up, I want to say that this is a personal issue,” he continued, adding a disclaimer most likely meant mainly for the benefit of the BSD folks, some of whom resent Linux’s success, but also to appease big enterprise, which is where the Linux Foundation gets virtually all of it’s funding.

“Some people love the BSD license,” he said. “Some people love proprietary licenses, and do you know what? I understand that. If you want to make a program and you want to feed your kids, it used to make a lot of sense to say that you want to have a proprietary license and sell binaries. I think it makes less sense today, but I really understand the argument. I don’t want to judge, I’m just kind of giving my view on licensing.”

Jim Zemlin, Executive Director of the Linux Foundation, seems to feel a little bit differently. Hall quotes him, in an article titled The Linux Foundation: Not a Friend of Desktop Linux, the GPL, or Openness:

“The most permissive licenses present little risk and few compliance requirements. These licenses include BSD and MIT, and others, that have minimal requirements, all the way to Apache and the Eclipse Public License, which are more elaborate in addressing contributions, patents, and indemnification.

“In the middle of the spectrum are the so-called ‘weak viral licenses’ which require sharing source code to any changes made to the originally licensed code, but not sharing of other source code linked or otherwise bound to the original open source code in question. The most popular and frequently encountered licenses in this category are the Mozilla Public License and the Common Public Attribution License.

“Restrictive Licenses present the most legal risk and complexity for companies that re-distribute or distribute software. These licenses are often termed ‘viral’ because software combined and distributed with this licensed software must be provided in source code format under the terms of those licenses. These requirements present serious risks to the preservation of proprietary software rights. The GNU General Public License is the archetype of this category, and is, in fact, the most widely used open source license in the world.”

Hall adds, "While his points are accurate enough, and reflect what I’ve already written in this article, the terms he uses suggest that the foundation holds the GPL and other copyleft licenses in contempt."

So what's all that got to do with the Software Freedom Law Center filing to have the Software Freedom Conservancy's trademark terminated? Nothing, insist the Linux Foundation and the SFLC. But Bruce Perens -- who founded the Linux Standard Base, one of the organizations that became the Linux Foundation -- thinks it's retaliation for a GPL enforcement lawsuit against VMware.

But that's a story for another post. Or two...