Monday, November 27, 2006

Tivoisation & rational FUD

Most of the stuff I've read or listened to from RMS is full of populist rhetoric, which I don't really find interesting. Some of it is priceless, but to me it's not usually worth the effort of sifting thru all the preaching to find the gems.

However, I very much liked his talk from the 5th International GPLv3 conference. In this one, he seems much more to-the-point. It's a very good explanation of the modifications in GPLv3 and the intentions behind them. (All of which are Noble and Good, but I think some of them are too far-reaching.)

One such modification/issue is "tivoisation." Stallman spells it out:

"They [Tivo] provide the users with source code and the users can then modify it and compile it and then install it in the Tivo. That's where the trouble begins because the Tivo will not run modified versions, the Tivo contains hardware designed to detect that the software has been changed and shuts down. So, regardless of the details of your modification, your modified version will not run in your Tivo."

I'm going to make a somewhat personal analogy to explain why I'm okay with the above scenario. I agree it's a reduction of freedom, but I'm okay with that (as I am with just about any other voluntarily-chosen freedom reduction).

My wife is a budding professional photographer (could be full-out professional if I ever finish her website!). One day I floated the idea to her of giving all of her clients (in addition to photo print packages) all of their photos in digital form on a CD so that they could do whatever they want with them - modify, copy, print, etc. She had a ready and pertinent response...

If one of her clients had a CD full of high-quality digital photos, and then made crappy modifications and walked down to a crappy photo print shop, they'd have some crappy photos. When one of their friends goes over and sees a bunch of crappy photos, they're bound to ask, "So, who took all these portraits?" and not, "Why do these photos look like crap?"

So, it's in her best interest NOT to allow modifications and printing - she has rational fear, uncertainty, and/or doubt about giving the digital source files to clients. The same might be said for Tivo. If someone has modified their Tivo box to look like crap, stop working, or whatever ... it reflects badly on Tivo to anyone else who might see that behavior as Tivo's doing. Tivo has rational FUD about giving all that freedom to its customers.

Like I said, this is not a "maximum-freedom" scenario, and I don't mind that the goal of GPLv3 is to maximize freedom, rather than maximize popularity. But I think GPL zealots would do well to consider that the prevalence of these kinds of situations and motivations induces some people into some legitimate FUD about some GPL stances & clauses. Like, maybe Tivo has more FUD about using GPL in the future, now that they're getting bad rep in the Free Software camp.

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