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Leading items and editorials

Sklyarov: the U.S. raises the stakes. Last week's delay in Dmitry Sklyarov's arraignment fed hopes that some sort of agreement was being pursued that would allow Dmitry Sklyarov to go free. No such luck. On August 28, a federal grand jury sent down an indictment charging both Sklyarov and Elcomsoft with trafficking in a copyright circumvention device. For good measure, they threw in a set of conspiracy charges as well.

As a result, Mr. Sklyarov faces a total of five counts; if found guilty, he could be sentenced to 25 years in prison and a $2.25 million dollar fine. In other words, he could be a guest of the U.S. prison system long after the mere armed robbers, rapists, and child molesters are allowed back into society.

It will be interesting to see how the U.S. decides to pursue the indictment against Elcomsoft the company; it's hard to sentence a corporation to jail. Elcomsoft President Alex Katalov is showing some serious bravery by remaining in the U.S. despite all that has happened.

The U.S. government, clearly, is serious about this prosecution. Somebody, somewhere, wants to put an immediate and forceful stop to the creation of "circumvention devices" and the exposure of third-rate encryption schemes. The raising of the stakes may be an attempt to intimidate Mr. Sklyarov into pleading guilty to a lesser charge, or perhaps the government wishes to make an example of him that nobody can ignore. One way or another, we are now seeing the degree of repression that the U.S. is willing to apply to ensure that certain kinds of software are not written.

It is time for the free software community worldwide to get serious as well. This is a threat we can not ignore. If this prosecution is successful, we will certainly see an increasing number of attempts to control, with force, how we can use our computers and what software we can write.

It takes very little imagination to picture a future where the general-purpose computer has been replaced by a "trusted computing platform" and systems which do not "seal data within domains" are treated as "circumvention devices." At what point, exactly, does Linux become an illegal device under the DMCA? In a world where programmers face 25-year sentences for code that was legal where they wrote it, this vision should not be seen as overly paranoid.

It is time to get serious. How can that be done?

  • Write code. The wide distribution of PGP years ago had a profound effect on attempts to restrict cryptographic software. Free software is difficult to control; there is no easy target like the one Elcomsoft provided with its proprietary offerings. The more code that is out there, the freer we all will be.

  • Attend protests. Many will be happening on August 30, of course, to mark the arraignment. But we will have to make ourselves seen and heard for a long time thereafter. See the event calendar on the FreeSklyarov.org site for the definitive list of events.

  • Pressure the political system. U.S. citizens should be writing to their congressional representatives asking them to apply pressure for Dmitry Sklyarov's release, and to push for a repeal of the DMCA. Web pages exist to help you find your House and Senate representatives. Note that snail mail tends to be more effective than email.

    Those of you outside the U.S. can raise awareness within your governments, and work to ensure that DMCA-like legislation is not passed in your country. DMCAish laws have been proposed in numerous countries; now is the time to show where such laws lead. The DMCA should not be allowed to infect countries beyond the U.S.

  • Tell people about what is going on. Write letters to the local newspaper. The Sklyarov case remains unknown to much of the non-technical population; that needs to change.

  • Contribute money. A legal defense fund has been set up to help pay Dmitry's expenses. The EFF is also expending considerable resources on this case (and others), and could benefit from your membership.

It is also time to consider pulling Adobe's name back into this whole affair. It is Adobe that started this particular prosecution; the company should not, at this point, be able to get out with one simple joint press release with the EFF. Adobe started this thing; it should help end it.

The free software community is faced with a challenge that is far more daunting than that of creating a top-quality, free operating system. Most of us are well out of our competence and comfort when dealing with this sort of oppressive politics. But this issue is going to come to us, whether we choose to address it or not. We can win this fight; even in the U.S., justice can usually be made to prevail. But it is going to take an effort beyond just putting "free Sklyarov" in our .signature files.

The Sklyarov story is developing quickly; see the LWN.net Daily Updates Page for the latest news. (See also: the EFF advisory on the Sklyarov indictment. The indictment itself is available in PDF format. The Free-Sklyarov mailing list is a good, if occasionally high bandwidth, source of information and rallying point.)

VA Linux goes proprietary? VA Linux Systems started off with the bad news: in its fiscal fourth quarter, the company managed to lose an amazing $5.58 per share. Much of this loss ($267 million) is a result [VA Logo] of the company's exit from the hardware business. Losses in the upcoming quarters will be less, which is a good thing.

Losses are going to have to keep getting smaller, though. The current projection is for a loss of $10 to $13 million in the next quarter. VA Linux Systems currently has $83 million in the bank, of which it expects to burn $6 million above its loss in the first quarter of fiscal 2002. That can not be sustained for very many quarters before something has to give.

The next bit of news out of VA Linux was, to some observers, even worse. In a letter to SourceForge users, the company explained that it plans to start offering commercial versions of the SourceForge software that include proprietary components. The nature of those components has not been made all that clear; it seems to include glue to integrate SourceForge with customer-owned proprietary systems (such as databases).

Interestingly, SourceForge.net, the free software development site, will be using a version of the SourceForge software with proprietary components. From the FAQ:

SourceForge.net will be using SourceForge Portal Edition, which will also include proprietary extensions, because it provides functionality that won't be available in future releases of SourceForge Open Edition.

So developers of free software on SourceForge.net will be using proprietary software to do their work.

A different spin on VA's new business direction can be found in Eric Raymond's mailing. According to Eric, VA is not changing its focus as an open source company in any way, it's just finding a way to more readily sell its free software and services by catering to the conservative instincts of middle managers.

What VA is doing instead is throwing a sop to those instincts by hanging some proprietary tinsel off the product. This makes it psychologically easier for Mr. Middle Manager to sign the check; he can think "I'm buying something real" -- as if bits on a disk are more real than the people-hours in the service contract that goes with it. But there it is; most sales and marketing is founded on the reality that people aren't very rational.

This, of course, is not a particularly complimentary attitude for a company to take toward its customers, but there may be some truth there. Maybe a bit of "proprietary tinsel" will succeed in making the SourceForge product more appealing to certain classes of customers. The proof will be in VA's results in the coming quarters.

It is difficult to criticize VA for doing what it thinks it needs to do to survive. If selling tinsel allows the company to continue to exist, employ free software developers, and operate SourceForge.net, then perhaps it is the best thing for the company to do. SourceForge.net, in particular, is a heavy, expensive commitment to the free software community. The lower VA's cash reserve gets, the more concerned SourceForge users (i.e. all of us, in one way or another) should be. As long as VA respects the licenses of the software it works with (and there are not allegations to the contrary), one can only wish the company luck as it looks for the combination that actually makes money.

Still, it is disturbing to consider the implication that excellent free software and services are not, themselves, sufficient to sustain a business the size of VA. That, certainly, is not the conclusion that many in the free software community were hoping to reach. Perhaps, as Eric Raymond says, the need for proprietary add-ons is temporary. And certainly the current economic climate is not helping. But it would have been nice to have more clear-cut free software business success stories by now.

Linux as a sound business move. Last week's History Page included a quote from a three-year-old ZDNet article:

Technically, Linux might be a reasonable choice, but what kind of company is going to rely on unsupported freeware or something that's supported by two tiny vendors? Rejecting Linux is a straightforward business decision. If it were supported by an IBM or a Hewlett-Packard, then that would be an entirely different matter.

That sort of stuff is always fun to pull out for a quick laugh; some of us, after all, had no doubts of Linux's bright future even in the prehistoric days of 1998. There is an interesting thing to note here, though: nobody talks that way anymore. One might reasonably question whether running a Linux business is a reasonable decision, but running a business on Linux is no longer controversial.

As an example of how entirely different the matter really is, consider this press release from IBM. It seems that the Securities Industry Automation Corporation (SIAC) is moving its "ARTMAIL" system to an IBM zServer running Linux. ARTMAIL operates as part of the New York and American stock exchanges, generating transaction reports for brokers.

It's hard to imagine a more conservative environment for Linux than the shuffling of financial data for the highest-volume stock exchange on the planet. Linux users will not doubt that the system can handle that sort of task; the fact that stock brokers now understand as well says a lot. Using Linux is not just a straightforward business decision; it's often the best decision.

Inside this LWN.net weekly edition:

  • Security: A new SELinux release.
  • Kernel: Whither 2.5?; min() and max() again; smarter readahead.
  • Distributions: LNX-BBC reviewed; Linux DA for the Palm; Omoikane GNU/Linux.
  • On the Desktop: KOffice 1.1 released, Webmin on Debian, Progress from Sun's Desktop Division.
  • Development: The GPLFarm, MontaVista Library Optimizer, Jabber News, new FLTK, GNOME Accessibility, profiling multi-threaded Python, Automake 1.5.
  • Commerce: Cluster solutions; lots of LinuxWorld announcements.
  • History: Corel's Linux plans through the years; Red Hat and LASER5 part ways; OSDL's first year.
  • Letters: Richard Stallman and freedom; entropy; VA Linux.
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

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August 30, 2001


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