Tim Retout's www presence

Wed, 04 Jun 2008

Free software, fix it

Another potential response to online complaints about free software is "FSFI", meaning "It's free software, fix it". This is the next level up from asking someone to link to their bug report - it places the sole responsibility for fixing the bug onto the shoulders of those who complain. Sometimes this can be reasonable - but expecting every user to be able to fix every problem themselves is not.

There was a link today on LWN to an article claiming that it is strictly the software which is free, not the users - the users must abide by the restrictions of the licence, so cannot distribute proprietary derivatives, for instance. I would have claimed exactly the opposite; software does not have a will that can be frustrated. It is the users of proprietary software who are not free to study, to improve, to share. The term "free software" misleads in this respect; the ethics are all about what the users can or cannot do. On the other hand, we might reasonably talk about a "free society", and would understand that its citizens were free as well.

The "copyleft" terms in some licences are therefore a matter of some debate - they limit what the user can legally do with the software. In this ethical framework, the right of one user to restrict the ability of other users to use, modify and share software is comparable to their right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. This philosophical question goes back to Mill's On Liberty and probably before - according to the "harm principle", the only justifiable use of the law is in preventing someone from causing harm to others. We do not generally think of societies which outlaw murder, say, to be less free.

Often people think of the LGPL as not being a "copyleft" licence, but this is not the case. In all cases the distributor has to provide the source to their modified or unmodified version of the software. There are in fact restrictions on the licences that you can link against - the end user must be free to make local modifications, and have the right to debug those modifications. It would be best described as a "weak copyleft" - a combined work can be distributed under different terms, but the rights of the user with respect to the LGPL-licensed work are protected.

With both societies and software, you are free to fix your own problems. Sometimes this is more of a burden than a blessing - but usually you do not have to do it alone.

Posted: 04 Jun 2008 00:00 | Tags: , , ,

Tue, 03 Jun 2008

Link to your bug report

With the rise of the blogosphere, a greater number of people are now free to post their thoughts to the world - and because of the nature of the medium, there are a fair number of people writing about their experiences with computer software. Most software is not perfect, so some proportion of those experiences will be negative.

In the special case of free software, all end users have the freedom to study and modify the source code. (It is easy to forget, having used GNU/Linux for a few years, that the licences of most proprietary software do not even give you the right to run the software in a debugger.) This does not imply, however, that the end user is necessarily capable of debugging any problems they run into themselves (although they do have the freedom to pay someone else to do so). In general, users will rely on the original developers of the software to fix any problems - and a good way to get the developers' attention is to file a report in the project's bug tracking system when there is one. It is unlikely that the developers will learn about problems through any other means.

The constructiveness of complaints about free software can therefore be judged by whether the user has filed a helpful bug report. Doing so demonstrates a willingness to improve the software, which benefits everyone. It is the first step in moving from 'consumer' of the software to 'contributor', and potentially from there to 'creator'. But what if people aren't interested in making that journey?

A recent trend is to reply to rants with a comment to the effect of, "Could you please link to your bug report?" Writing is no less a creative act than software development - the question is asking the author to shift their creative energy away from their blog and towards the software. What should the response be if the author has no interest in helping to develop the software? It is often easier for the user simply to switch to a different program, or work around the bug. They might develop a competing program that is entirely superior to the original, or use their time some other way. Should we expect every user to give back?

If people have the freedom to help their neighbour, they must surely also have the freedom not to help. Comments like the above can certainly steer complaints into constructive feedback, or highlight trolling. I'm not sure, however, that we should expect them to build a community of unwilling participants.

Posted: 03 Jun 2008 00:00 | Tags: , , ,

Sun, 02 Dec 2007

Enscript git repositories

Today I created a git repository for enscript's Debian packaging. The upstream repository is in git as well, of course.

Next I need to work on pulling any distro fixes I can find into upstream, and getting a new bugfix version released. This should hopefully obsolete most of the Debian patches.

Posted: 02 Dec 2007 00:00 | Tags: , , , , , ,

Sat, 17 Nov 2007

GNU Enscript Maintainership

Some news that's overdue to be blogged: a few weeks ago, I picked up the Debian package 'enscript', and fixed some of the easier bugs in it. This has been uploaded to unstable, thanks to Myon, who rocks.

Having looked at the package, I realised that further work on it was unfeasible without a new upstream release. GNU Enscript had been unmaintained for a while, so I wrote to the GNU project and asked whether I could set up a Savannah project for it. A few days later, rms dubbed me the official maintainer.

This week, I sent in my copyright assignment form. This is one of the things I wasn't expecting - from the copyright headers, it didn't look as if Enscript required copyright assignment to the FSF. Still, it makes sense in the long run. I have to examine the existing code, and work out whether there are any other contributors from whom to ask for assignments or disclaimers. One of these days I'll actually get around to writing some code for it, perhaps.

On the plus side, I now have an account on fencepost.gnu.org, which means I have a nice gnu.org email address to go with it. Also, the FSF sent some nice stickers for my laptop with the copyright form.

Posted: 17 Nov 2007 00:00 | Tags: , , , , ,

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