Older blog entries for louie (starting at number 682)

Why feed reading is an open web problem, and what browsers could do about it

I’ve long privately thought that Firefox should treat feed reading as a first-class citizen of the open web, and integrate feed subscribing and reading more deeply into the browser (rather than the lame, useless live bookmarks.) The impending demise of Reader has finally forced me to spit out my thoughts on the issue. They’re less polished than I like when I blog these days, but here you go – may they inspire someone to resuscitate this important part of the open web.

What? Why is this an open web problem?

When I mentioned this on twitter, an ex-mozillian asked me why I think this is the browser’s responsibility, and particularly Mozilla’s. In other words – why is RSS an open web problem? why is it different from, say, email? It’s a fair question, with two main parts.

First, despite what some perceive as the “failure” of RSS, there is obviously  a demand by readers to consume web content as an automatically updated stream, rather than as traditional pages.1 Google Reader users are extreme examples of this, but Facebook users are examples too: they’re no longer just following friends, but companies, celebrities, etc. In other words, once people have identified a news source they are interested in, we know many of them like doing something to “follow” that source, and get updated in some sort of stream of updates. And we know they’re doing this en masse! They’re just not doing it in RSS – they’re doing it in Twitter and Facebook. The fact that people like the reading model pioneered by RSS – of following a company/news source, rather than repeatedly visiting their web site – suggests to me that the widely perceived failure of RSS is not really a failure of RSS, but rather a failure of the user experience of discovering and subscribing to RSS.

Of course, lots of things are broadly felt desires, and aren’t integrated into browsers – take email for example. So why are feeds different? Why should browsers treat RSS as a first-class web citizen in a way they don’t treat other things? I think that the difference is that if closed platforms (not just web sites, but platforms) begins to the only (or even best) way to experience “reading streams of web content”, that is a problem for the web. If my browser doesn’t tightly integrate email, the open web doesn’t suffer. If my browser doesn’t tightly integrate feed discovery and subscription, well, we get exactly what is happening: a mass migration away from consuming (and publishing!) news through the open web, and instead it being channeled into closed, integrated publishing and subscribing stacks like FB and Twitter that give users a good subscribing and reading experience.

To put it another way: Tantek’s definition of the open web (if I may grotesquely simplify it) is a web where publishing content, implementing software that consumes that content, and accessing the content is all open/decentralized. RSS2 is the only existing way to do stream-based reading that meets these requirements. So if you believe (as I do) that reading content delivered in a stream is a central part of the modern web experience, then defending RSS is an important part of defending the open web.

So that’s, roughly, my why. Here’s a bunch of random thoughts on what the how might look like:

Discovery

When you go to CNN on Facebook, “like” – in plain english, with a nice icon – is right up there, front and center. RSS? Not so much. You have to know what the orange icon means (good luck with that!) and find it (either in the website or, back in the day, in the browser toolbar). No wonder no one uses it, when there is no good way to figure out what it means. Again, the failure is not the idea of feeds- the failure is in the way it was presented to users. A browser could do this the brute-force way (is there an RSS feed? do a notice bar to subscribe) but that would probably get irritating fast. It would be better to be smart about it. Have I visited nytimes.com five times today? Or five days in a row? Then give me a notice bar: “hey, we’ve noticed you visit this site an awful lot. Would you like to get updates from it automatically?” (As a bonus, implementing this makes your browser the browser that encourages efficiency. ;)

Subscription

Once you’ve figured out you can subscribe, then what? As it currently stands, someone tells you to click on the orange icon, and you do, and you’re presented with the NASCAR problem, made worse because once you click, you have to create an account. Again, more fail; again, not a problem inherent in RSS, but a problem caused by the browser’s failure to provide an opinionated, useful default.

This is not an easy problem to solve, obviously. My hunch is that the right thing to do is provide a minimum viable product for light web users – possibly by supplementing the current “here are your favorite sites” links with a clean, light reader focused on only the current top headlines. Even without a syncing service behind it, that would still be helpful for those users, and would also encourage publishers to continue treating their feeds as first-class publishing formats (an important goal!).

Obviously solving the NASCAR problem is still hard (as is building a more serious built-in app), but perhaps the rise of browser “app stores” and web intents/web activities might ease it this time around.

Other aspects

There are other aspects to this – reading, social, and provision of reading as a service. I’m not going to get into them here, because, well, I’ve got a day job, and this post is a month late as-is ;) And because the point is primarily (1) improving the RSS experience in the browser needs to be done and (2) some minimum-viable products would go a long way towards making that happen. Less-than-MVPs can be for another day :)

  1. By “RSS” and “feeds” in this post, I really mean the subscribing+reading experience; whether the underlying tech is RSS, Atom, Activity Streams, or whatever is really an implementation detail, as long as anyone can publish to, and read from them, in distributed fashion.
  2. again, in the very broad sense of the word, including more modern open specifications that do basically the same thing

Syndicated 2013-04-22 05:43:39 from Luis Villa » Blog

One year on OSI’s board (aka one year in OSI’s licensing)

Since it has been roughly one year since Mozilla nominated me to sit on the OSI board, I thought I’d recap what I’ve done over the course of the year. It hasn’t been a perfect year by any stretch, but I’m pretty happy with what we’ve done and I think we’re pointed in the right direction. Because my primary public responsibility on the board has been chairing the license committee, this can also sort of double as a review of the last year in license-discuss/license-review (though there is lots of stuff done by other members of the community that doesn’t show up here yet).

Outside of licensing, my work has consisted mostly of cheerleading the hard work of others on the board (like Deb’s hard work on our upcoming DC meeting and the work of many people on our membership initiative) – I haven’t listed each instance of that here.

"Open Source" Water
Wikimedia Deutschland offices in Berlin, during the tour at the Chapters Meeting 2011“, by Mike Peel, under CC-BY-SA 2.5. (Mind you, CC is not actually OSI-certified ;)

Some things that got done:

  • Drafted and published a beta Code of Conduct for license-discuss/license-review. This was drafted with the intent that it will eventually be a CoC for all of OSI, but we’re still formally beta-testing it in the license committee community.
  • Revised the opensource.org/licenses landing page to make it more useful to visitors who are not familiar with open source. Also poked and prodded others to do various improvements to the FAQ, which now has categories and a few improved questions.
  • Revised OSI’s history page. The main changes were to update it to reflect the past  5-6 years, but also to make it more readable and more positive.
  • Oversaw a number of license submissions. I can’t take much credit for these- the community does most of the heavy lifting. But the group submitted in the past year include AROS, MOSL, “No Nonsense“, and CeCILL. The new EUPL is in the pipeline as well.
  • Engaged Greenberg Traurig as outside counsel to OSI, and organized and hosted a board face-to-face meeting at Greenberg’s San Francisco office space.
  • Helped keep lines of communication open (and hopefully improving!) with SPDX and OKFN.

Some projects are important, but incomplete:

Some projects never really got off  the ground:

  • I wanted to get GNOME to join OSI as an affiliate. This, very indirectly, spurred the history page revision mentioned above, but otherwise never really got anywhere.
  • I wanted to have OSI reach out to the authors of the CPOL and push them to improve it or adopt an existing license. That never happened.
  • I wanted to figure out how to encourage github to require a license for new projects, but got no traction.

I hope that this sounds like a pretty good year- it isn’t perfect but it felt like a good start to me, giving us some things we can build on for future years.

That said, it shouldn’t be up to just me – if you think this kind of thing sounds useful  for the broader open source community, you can help :)

  • Join license-discuss, or, if you’re more sensitive to mail traffic, but still want to help with the committee’s most important work, join license-review, which focuses on approving/rejecting proposed new licenses.
  • Become a member! Easier than joining license-discuss  ;) and provides both fiscal and moral support to the organization.

Syndicated 2013-03-17 20:03:29 from Luis Villa » Blog

Pushing back against licensing and the permission culture

tl;dr: the open license ecosystem assumes that sharing can’t (or even shouldn’t) happen without explicit permission in the form of licenses. What if “post open source” is an implicit critique of that assumption – saying, in essence, “I reject the permission culture”? If so, license authors might want to consider creating options that enable people to express that opinion.

A few months back, James Governor said:

younger devs today are about POSS – Post open source software. fuck the license and governance, just commit to github.

— James Governor (@monkchips) September 17, 2012

While the actual extent of “POSS” is debatable, there is definitely an increase in the amount of unlicensed code out there. This post suggests 20+% of the most-watched github projects are unlicensed. The pushback against licensing isn’t specific to software, either – at least some sharing musicians are deliberately spurning Creative Commons (via Lucas) and Nina Paley has been obliquely making the same point about the licensing of her art as well.

A few months back, I pointed out that the lack of licensing led to confusion and so was great for lawyers. That post was accurate, but slightly glib. Here, I want to grapple more seriously with the rejection of licensing, and provoke the licensing community to think about what that means.

A dab of history and context

In the US, prior to the 1976 Copyright Act, you had to take affirmative steps to get a protectable copyright. In other words, you could publish something and expect others to be able to legally reuse it, without slapping a license on it first.

Since the 1976 Act, you get copyright simply by creating the work in question. That means every blog post and every github commit is copyrighted. This restrictive default, combined with the weakness of fair use, leads to the “permission culture” – the pernicious assumption that you must always ask permission before doing anything with anyone’s work, because nothing is ever simply shared or legally usable. (This assumption is incorrect, but the cost of acting that way can be high if you make a mistake.)

Permission, by Nina Paley.
Permission, by Nina Paley.

“POSS” might be more than just bad hygiene

It is easy to assume that the pushback against licenses (“post-open source”) is because licensing is confusing/time-consuming and people are lazy/busy. While I’m sure these are the primary reasons, I think that, for some people, the pushback against licenses often reflects a belief that “no copyright should mean no permission needed”. In other words, those people choose not to use a license because, on some level, they reject the permission culture and want to go back to the pre-1976 defaults. In this case, publishing without a license is in some way a political statement  – “not every use should need permission”.1

Fixing(?) the politics of our licenses

If some “no license” sharing is a quiet rejection of the permission culture, the lawyer’s solution (make everyone use a license, for their own good!) starts to look bad. This is because once an author has used a standard license, their immediate interests are protected – but the political content of not choosing a license is lost. Or to put it another way: if license authors get their wish, and everyone uses a license for all content, then, to the casual observer, it looks like everyone accepts the permission culture. This could make it harder to change that culture – to change the defaults – in the long run.

So how might we preserve the content of the political speech against the permission culture, while also allowing for use in that same, actually-existing permission culture? Or to put it more concisely:

What would a “license” that actively rejects the permission culture look like?

A couple of off-the-wall options:

  • Permissive+political preamble license: The WTFPL license (“Do WTF you want“) has been floating around for ages, and using it makes the point that (1) you want people to use your code and (2) you’re irritated that they even have to ask. Adding a brief “I hate that I have to do this” preamble to a permissive license like CC-0 might serve a similar purpose, while providing more legal certainty than WTFPL. (And of course such a preamble could also be used with a strong copyleft, like copyleft-next.)
  • Fair Use supplement: Fair use is the traditional safety valve for copyright, but it is hard to know if a particular use is “fair.” So a “license” could be written that, instead of formally licensing under specific terms, instead aims to provide more certainty about fair use. Some ways this could be done would include broadly defining the fair use categories, explicitly accepting transformative use as a factor in the fair use analysis, or asking courts to interpret ambiguity in favor of the recipient instead of the author. It is also possible to imagine this as a supplement to the existing fair use clauses in modern licenses (CC-BY 3.0 Sec. 2, GPL v3 Sec. 2, MPL 2 Sec 2.6), laying out a strong vision of fair use to help guide and protect anyone relying on those clauses.
  • “What People Actually Think Copyright Is” license: most Americans2 think that personal use of copyrighted materials is legal under modern copyright law. So a license that focused on personal use might work better than the more nebulous “non-commercial”. As a bonus, since commercial interests will clearly be unable to use the content, getting it “right for lawyers” may be less of a concern.

Careful readers will note that the last two options are unlikely to be OSI-open or FSF-free. For the purposes of this exercise, that’s OK- OSI, FSF, and CC’s iron-clad assumption that licensing is good is what I’d like to provoke people to think about here.3

Conclusion, and provocation

I don’t offer these license ideas as a comprehensive survey of what an anti-permission-culture license might look like, or even a good survey. Instead, take them as a provocation: are we – particularly authors and evaluators of open licenses – part of the problem of the permission culture? Are we actually responding to the people who use our licenses, if one of their desires is to push back against the need to license? Can we be more creative about expressing distaste for the permission culture, without gumming up the works of sharing too much? I think that, if we think critically, we can, and perhaps we should.

  1. Another motive, that I won’t go into here but which also deserves serious discussion for license authors, is simply that the values encapsulated in our licenses are taken for granted by younger developers who have always had a plentiful, healthy free-as-in-beer code commons. Both the permissive and copyleft communities would do well to argue the case for their licenses (not just their overall philosophies) better than they currently do.
  2. per Jessica Littman, Digital Copyright, p. 117
  3. If it wasn’t already obvious, this post is obviously not made with my OSI hat on – OSI continues to firmly endorse the Open Source Definition.

Syndicated 2013-01-28 03:00:20 from Luis Villa » Blog

So, iPhone friends: Anyone using Simple? Like it?…

So, iPhone friends: Anyone using Simple? Like it? Useful? Worth signing up for (now that they have Android)?

Syndicated 2013-01-15 18:08:51 from Luis Villa » Blog

Important, excellent long read from @matthewstolle…

Important, excellent long read from @matthewstoller on @aaronsw ‘s broader approach to politics. Read the whole thing. nakedcapitalism.com/2013/01/aaron-…

Syndicated 2013-01-14 15:07:21 from Luis Villa » Blog

Apologies for any spamming

Apologies to any planets/feeds I’m spamming with old tweet-junk right now; I’m trying to archive some tweets into WP and that may lead to some noise temporarily!

Syndicated 2013-01-14 03:45:19 from Luis Villa » Blog

Great article by @pchestek on “belt and suspenders…

Great article by @pchestek on “belt and suspenders” assignment of IP: feedproxy.google.com/~r/PropertyInt…

Syndicated 2013-01-10 14:48:38 from Luis Villa » Blog

A revised OSI “Open Source Licenses” page

When someone new to open source does a web search for “open source licenses”, the first page that comes up1 is opensource.org/licenses – making it one of the most important resources for newcomers to open source.2

Despite that, until today, all that a newbie would get when going to that page was two links: one to the list of approved licenses alphabetically, and another by category. This is obviously not ideal – it provides the newcomer with information useful only to an expert, so they lose; and OSI misses an opportunity to educate and inform, so we lose.

Because of this, in the middle of last year I sent an email to license-discuss proposing a revision to the page, and followed up several times in the second half of the year. Yesterday, I took the revision live.

Don't do a nano without them by mpclemens, used under CC-BY 2.0.
Don’t do a nano without them by mpclemens, used under CC-BY 2.0.

Here is what the revision does, in a nutshell:

  • gives context: what is an open source license? what does OSI-approved mean? These give a newcomer to the list a fighting chance of figuring out what the lists mean.
  • provides a less-overwhelming list of licenses: using the “popular, widely used, or have strong communities” list created by the 2006 Proliferation Report, it gives people pointers to several useful licenses immediately, while still providing access to the full lists.
  • works with OSI’s other resources: The new page links to OSI’s excellent FAQ and the annotated Open Source Definition, among other things. Again, these provide context, and help the page serve as a gateway for others.
  • is progress: OSI can be, and often should be, a very change-averse organization. But it is nice to score a small win here and there- I hope this will be the first of many while I chair the license committee.

And what it doesn’t do:

  • change the world: I’m blogging about this because it’s significant. But I also want to be clear that it is only a small win, and hopefully one that in 2-3 years OSI will look back on and have a good chuckle about.
  • change, update or revise the license categories: The original license proliferation committee license categories, from 2006, have been useful to many people, and were instrumental in slowing the pace of license proliferation. So they make sense to use as the (relatively neutral) basis for the list that is now prominent on /licenses/. But they’re showing their age- notably by including CDDL in “popular/widely used” but in other ways as well (primarily, by not categorizing a variety of new licenses). OSI’s licensing committee (aka the license-discuss list, with input from others) will be gradually investigating how to address this over the course of the next year or so. This process has already started, somewhat, with my calls for quantitative criteria for license analysis. I intend to continue to push the list (including hopefully new members!) to think through the issue and its implications.

If you’re interested in helping out with future changes, please join the list.

  1. other than an ad for opensource.com, interestingly
  2. Interesting research question/bleg: for a reasonably comprehensive set of important “open source + foo” terms, like collaboration, licensing, etc., where do search results point at? How many go to opensource.org? .com? other sites? Is there a tool that will do this sort of analysis automatically?

Syndicated 2013-01-03 16:30:26 from Luis Villa » Blog

Licensing confusion is great! (for lawyers)

I want to heartily unendorse Simon Phipps’ Infoworld article about Github and licensing. Simon’s article makes it sound like no one benefits from sloppy licensing practices, and that is simply not true. Specifically, lawyers benefit! I regularly get calls from clients saying “I have no idea if I’m allowed to use <project X>, because it is on github but doesn’t have a license.” When that happens, instead of money going to developers where it could actually build something productive, instead, I get to spend my time and the client’s money fixing a problem that the original author could have easily avoided by slapping an Apache license on the thing in the first place – or that github could have avoided by adding default terms.

So, support your local open source lawyer today – publish source code without a license!1

  1. Tongue firmly in cheek, in case that isn’t obvious. Seriously, lawyers are the only ones who benefit from this situation, except for that handful of seconds it took you to “git add LICENSE”. Always license your code, kids!

Syndicated 2012-12-03 17:13:47 from Luis Villa » Blog

Showrunner and Show Bible? Or Cult?

I don’t currently do much heavily collaborative writing, but I’m still very interested in the process of creating very collaborative works. So one of the many stimulating discussions at Monktoberfest was a presentation by two awesome O’Reilly staffers about the future (and past) of authorship. Needless to say, collaborative authoring was a major theme. What particularly jumped out at me in the talk and the discussion afterwards was a nagging fear that any text authored by multiple people would necessarily lack the coherence and vision of the best single-author writing.

I’ve often been very sympathetic to this concern. Watching groups of people get together and try to collaboratively create work is often painful. Those groups that have done best, in my experience, are often those with some sort of objective standard for the work they’re creating. In software, that’s usually “it compiles,” followed (in the best case) by “it passes all the tests.” Where there aren’t objective standards all team members can work with – as is often the case with UI  – the process tends to fall apart. Where there are really detailed objective standards that every contribution can be measured against – HTTP, HTML – open source is often not just competitive, but dominant.

On the flip side, you get no points for thinking of the canonical example of a single designer’s vision guiding the development of software. But Apple is an example that proves the rule – software UIs that are developed without reference to objective standards of good/bad are usually either bad, or run by a not-very-benevolent dictator who has spent decades refining his vision of authorship.

Wikipedia is another very large exception to the “many cooks” argument. It is an exception because most written projects can’t possibly have a rule of thumb so straightforward and yet effective as “neutral point of view,” because most written projects aren’t factual, dry or broken-up-into-small-chunks. In other words, most written projects aren’t encyclopedias and so can’t be written “by rule.”

Or at least that’s what I was thinking during the talk. In response to this, someone commented during the post-talk Q&A1 that essentially all TV shows are collaboratively written, and yet manage to be coherent. In fact, in our new golden age of TV drama they’re often more than coherent- they’re quite good, despite extremely complex plots sprawling over several years of effort. This has stuck in my head ever since because it goes against all my hard-learned instincts.

I really don’t know what the trick is, since I’m not a TV writer. I suspect that in most cases the showrunner does it by (1) having a very clear vision of where the show is going (often not the case in software) and (2) clearly articulating and communicating that vision – i.e. having a good show bible and sticking to it.

If you’re not looking carefully, this looks a lot like what Aaron has rightly called a cult of personality. But I think, after being reminded about showrunners and show bibles, it is important to distinguish the two. It is a fine line, but there is a real different between what Aaron is concerned about and skilled leadership. Maybe a good test is to ask that leader: where is your show bible? What can I read to understand the vision, and help flesh it out like the writer of an episode? If the answer is “follow whatever I’m thinking about this month,” or “I’m too busy leading to write it down”, then you’ve got problems. But if your leadership can explain, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater- that’s a person who has thought seriously about what they’re doing and how you can help them build something bigger and better than you could each do alone, not a cult leader.

  1. if you’re this person, please drop me a note and I’ll credit you!

Syndicated 2012-11-14 16:07:55 from Luis Villa » Blog Posts

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