Archive for March, 2008

New eeePC

I bought a white 4G eeePC on Saturday (at the Good Guys Alexandria on my way back from Mascot after being given the run around by a luggage repair shop – sent me an sms saying come and pick up your bag, then when I get there the bag wasn’t ready. In fact the part wasn’t even in the State anyway…). Price for credit card was $455 (a $3 discount off the advertised price).

The shop assistant was pretty good telling me about the machine, including that it ran Linux (although didn’t make a big thing of it, nor that it wouldn’t run windows software). That said, he did say that if I got an SD card I would be able to load XP onto it. I suspect that the instructions in the manual on how to do this raise Trade Practices issues and may get around to posting a comment on that sometime.

It worked out of the box (battery was charged). I have spent a little bit of time coming to terms with it over the weekend. It comes with Xandros Linux, which if I recall correctly has entered a patent deal with Microsoft, so is therefore on the nose. I will need to work out how to hose it. The software available (and the set up with the unionfs) makes it clear that it is designed as an appliance, albeit a relatively versatile one. ASUS maintains a repository of programs, but it is very limited, so you need to add others to get a wider variety of stuff (a good starting point for things eee is the unofficial eeeuser site.

I had some trouble setting up networking, primarily because the cable wasn’t plugged in at the router properly. After the cable was plugged in it worked much better. I haven’t tried leeching off someone else’s wireless but there’s time enough for that.

The user is identified as “user” and it doesn’t come with an ssh server. I have downloaded the frotz z code interpreter and may take some IF games away with me [Note: to install frotz you first need to add other software repositories (and "pin" them). Once this is done type sudo apt-get frotz from a terminal (ctrl-alt-t) or install via synaptic.]

This post was typed on the eee. The keys are a little cramped (I don’t have big fingers), the right shift that everyone complains about is hard to hit, and the apostrophe is elusive. That said, typing isn’t too much of a strain, although I would be wary of using the keyboard for long documents.

The touchpad is small, but functional and just as annoying as any other touch pad. I will probably pack a USB mouse to take with me wherever I go. I guess I could also take a flexible keyboard that I have. The touchpad has a single button, but clicking on the left or right side makes it a left/right click respectively. The touchpad also has a scrolling area which works pretty well. I slightly increased the sensitivity of the touchpad.

Thankfully the keys aren’t as loud as normal keyboard keys but aren’t silent. While the screen is small the definition is still comparatively high, so there is enough stuff on a screen, although some fonts are a little bit hard to read. Battery lasted about 4 hours with minimal use. It seems to be pretty portable, but I haven’t taken it out yet to see. I may do that in the next 15 minutes.

Update – The Trip to the Coffee Shop

Well, I went to get some lunch and took some stuff to read (and the eee just in case). Got to the end of what I had printed and found I didn’t print enough. However, I had loaded the pdf of the doc onto the eee, so it was a good excuse to get it out and show it off – so I did.

The pdf reader (Acrobat 7) provides good readable text if you can master it. Ctrl-L for full screen, but this resizes the image to fit page – ie way too small. If you use ctrl-m to zoom you get good size fonts across the width of the screen.

So I sat and I sat. It was a quite time in the cafe so there wasn’t really anyone in the shop to show it off to. Until, that is, the owner came over and asked about it. He knew it was Linux and that you could load up XP on it. That the local coffee shop owner can not only identify the machine, but also that it runs Linux (in my view) speaks volumes for market recognition of both this device and Linux.

Misc Other Observations

I have run it now for about an hour this afternoon and the battery is at 80%

The manage photos app (gwenview) has a launch gimp menu item – but gimp doesn’t seem to be installed.

The fact that there is only 1 ctrl key annoys me (can’t ctrl-shift-select). Presumably there is a way to remap the right alt key to a ctrl key… However, the fact that the whole keyboard can be reached with 1 hand is great (for those times when you only have 1 hand free).

To boot from a fully shut down machine to a functioning workspace takes about 15 seconds (guesstimate) and from suspend probably under 10. The eee also renders the flash based traffic graphs (on WordPress) that I have never seen before (not having loaded a proprietary flash player on my other machines) and wish were just jpgs served by the server rather than awful Flash.

The more I use it the more I like it. Now I just have to find a way to make it a more ethical machine.

Finally (?) the eee is pretty much the only electronic device in the house (including my mobile phone) which has correctly negotiated the change in daylight savings (which is to say it didn’t incorrectly think daylight savings finished yesterday).

FOSS Software and SAAS

Summary [updated 25 March 2008]

This is something of a theoretical argument, and one which is unlikely to see the light of day in court (if only because the court rooms in the Sydney registry of the Federal Court have no windows). The thrust of the argument is that the manner in which a SAAS model is implemented using FOSS might determine whether or not the implementation is legal/licensed. Conversely it may provide a means for businesses to “monetize” open source applications if they control sufficient copyrights (although probably not possible with software under GPL v3). In short, it may be that recent “innovations” in copyright law have indirectly harmed open source models by shifting the ground underneath them.

Note on Application to Closed Source

This argument will probably also apply more or less unchanged to closed source programs, although in that case the licensor has flexibility to expressly customise the licence to cover end users. This may not be a practical option for FOSS licensors.

Note on Commercial Application [Added 25 March 2008]

If this argument is correct, then another consequence is that those projects which control the copyright of the software will be able to exclude or charge others (ie competitors) from providing SAAS for the software. Indeed, it may be the case that anyone who has copyright in part of the software can prevent its use under a SAAS model. Assuming the community thought this was inappropriate, a business doing this would then run the risk of being blackballed.

Argument

The legislative background is (section references to the Copyright Act (Cth) 1968):

  1. it’s illegal to make a reproduction in a material form (s 31(a)(i)) of a substantial part (s 14(1)) of a literary work (which includes a computer program (s 10));
  2. subject to an exception, a reproduction in a material form can include reproductions made (including made in memory) in the course of running the program. While ultimately a question of fact in each case, historically judges have refused to say that a reproduction in memory of a computer program while it is running is an infringement by reason that, because the copy could not ordinarily be reproduced from the memory, if it was a reproduction it was nevertheless not in a material form, thus not an infringement under s 31(a)(i); However, (as part of the AUSFTA – s 186 of the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act No 120 of 2004) the definition of material form has been changed so the capability of reproduction no longer counts and a copy of the program in RAM is now fair game for an infringement argument; and
  3. the exception (s 47B(1)) says that the normal running of a program is not an infringement if certain conditions are met. Those are – the reproduction is “incidentally and automatically made” as “part of the technical process of” running the copy (s 47B(1)(a)); and “the running of the copy is done by, or on behalf of, the owner or licensee of the copy” (s 47B(1)(b).

So the relevant questions are:

  1. when a customer fires up their browser and logs on to an instance of a piece of SAAS are they running a copy of the program (or do they otherwise run such a copy); and, if so,
  2. are they doing so “by, or on behalf of, the owner or licensee of the copy.”

They key words are “licensee of the copy“. That is, of the copy which is being run, not of any old copy. Typically the end user of the program will not have received a copy of it. Most FOSS licences trigger the commencement of the licence from the time that the person receives a copy – so while the service provider may be assumed to be properly licensed, the end user is by assumption not a licensee (in any event the particular copy which is being run is probably licensed to the service provider rather than the end user). Therefore, if the end user is not a licensee, then unless they are running the software on behalf of the service provider (or some other licensee of the copy) they’re not within 47B.

To be on the safe side therefore a service provider who is using FOSS ought to consider having program instances which run independent of its customers. That is, the customer ought not to be the person who initiates or perpetuates the running of a copy of the program. Rather, it should be the service provider (since they are the licensee of the copy in question) who runs the copy (it will then be run “by… the… licensee of the copy.”

If the end user is in fact the person running the copy of the software, and it is not running it “on behalf of” the relevant service provider (presumed to be the licensee) then they won’t get the benefit of section 47B and will therefore run the risk of infringement of section 31(a)(i). If there is in fact an infringement by the end user, the service provider is also likely to be liable for authorizing the infringement (s 13(2) and a number of cases).

Counter arguments

As I mentioned, it’s not a glory (ie “a nice knock down argument”). You might argue that:

  1. the end user has received a copy of the software (constructively) when the service provider loads it up ready for them to run. If so, this may cause other problems in licences which have provision of a copy as a trigger event for other consequences (such as the supply of the source code);
  2. when the end user runs the program “it’s really” the licensed service provider who is running the copy or it is run on their behalf;
  3. that when the programs are run there is not in fact a substantial reproduction occurring (this would be a question of fact);
  4. the relevant licence does in fact extend to cover the particular end user. Licences which are structured as a grant from the original licensor to the recipient of a copy are unlikely to meet this exception;
  5. when a licensee is licensed in respect of one copy, they are automatically licensed in respect of all other copies (including those they haven’t received) (nb: question of fact);
  6. honestly, who’s going to sue anyway?

Conclusion

If it does turn out to be a problem, it would not be appropriate to lay the blame at the feet of the licenses (or their drafters). Rather, it is a consequence of inadequate thought being given to the expansion of copyright law, creating problems which were not foreseen when the relevant licences were created. Since judges were doing something comparatively sensible by requiring that a copy must be able to be reproduced for it to be in material form this would not previously have been an issue. However, the AUSFTA has changed that. While there is a provision which attempts to preserve the sanity of the system, it has not anticipated the constantly evolving models in the technology sector.

Note on GPL v3 [Added 25 March 2008]

GPL v3 is different from most FOSS licences in that it defines its permissions implicitly by reference to the copyright law (through the terms “conveying” and “propagating”). As the copyright law changes, GPL v3 is automatically updated to track those changes. Other FOSS licences which are restricted to permitting specific actions (eg “reproduction” or “use”) will be adversely affected by changes in the copyright law. For example, the addition of a rental right for computer software in the late 90s probably has the practical effect of limiting the scope of those licences – when they were drafted there was no rental right, no one bothered to anticipate it in the licence. However, since it hasn’t been anticipated in the licence, the commercial rental of such programs is probably in doubt.

In general therefore this nature of the GPL v3 would recommend itself to those licensors looking for resilience against legislative or judicial changes to the copyright law. Unfortunately, in this case the implicit referencing may not get the licence all the way there. The lynchpin of the argument is when and how does a person become licensed. GPL v3 has a similar structure to that mentioned above. That is, that the licence is effective upon receipt by the prospective licensee of a copy of the software.

That said, the right to “propagate” expressly permits licensees to authorise third parties to run the program. In practical terms GPL v3 probably does preserve the right to run the GPLed software in an SAAS model. Under the law the end user will probably not have a licence (since they will not have received a copy). However, the service provider will have a licence and that licence permits what would otherwise be a secondary infringement (eg authorisation). Thus the copyright owner might sue end users, but the service provider would not be unlikely to be able to be sued (and who’s going to be silly enough to sue end users?).

Interactive Fiction

Some time ago for some reason the kids’ computer became subject to parent imposed use restrictions – ie booting to a command line. Initially this was done to simply restrict the my oldest son’s access to computer games. However, I soon softened this approach and showed him how to play “The Word Game”.

At first, he wasn’t all that interested in the word game, since reading is something of a newly acquired skill and The Word Game was somewhat taxing in this regard. But I helped a little and he got more and more interested in it. Especially when he started stumbling across treasure and magic! In next to no time he started showing the single mindedness of purpose with The Word Game – played through the command line remember – that he showed with the GUI based games. The fact that interacting with the game presupposed not only reading the text but correctly spelling inputs seemed to me to be not such a bad thing for someone learning how to read and write.

In the end he decided he wanted to make The Word Game the theme for his birthday party. For those who haven’t guessed, he is playing Colossal Cave, aka Adventure – the 350 point version with the original parser (which I first played on a Wang OIS in the early 80s, it not being available on the VS). I thought that there must have been strides forward in interaction over the past 30 ish years so went searching on the internet. Apparently adventure is now (and has been for some time) branded as “Interactive Fiction” or “IF”. There is even a (very much sort of) natural language compiler for interactive fiction (called Inform 7 or I7). I7 compiles to a thing called Z-code. If you have a z-code interpreter for your platform then a Z-code game is platform independent (there are a number of interpreters, but a command line one for Linux is frotz). Unfortunately both I7 and frotz must be compiled from source code. Fortunately, subject to downloading a lot of dependencies, that is uncomplicated. There is a z-code re-implementation of Colossal Cave, so I have downloaded and installed it and he now gets a slightly more powerful interface (eg a command history).

I have spent the last month or so writing a custom IF for my son. It’s called “Get Up and Get Got Up”. The point is for him to get out of bed and get dressed for school. I would guess that this has taken a good 20 or more hours (of which maybe 75% were devoted to trying to work out the I7 not-all-that-natural-language-when-you-really-think-about-it syntax). He looks like he will be finished it in two days. He came into my room yesterday morning clearly scared. He had jumped on his bed in the game (which causes the game to end in failure) and took it too much to heart. It was all we could do to make him feel better again.

Now I am faced with the prospect of writing a sequel.


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