[DISCUSS] LUG questions
craig at buchek.com
Thu Feb 6 00:00:12 CST 2003
> I received some questions from a local reporter (see below).
Thanks for picking that up, Robert. He had sent it to me as well,
but I was out of town and without email for a week. Here are some of my
[I've BCCed the journalist as well.]
> What is a LUG? [ what role does a LUG play in the gnu/linux
> community, how can people get involved with one in Saint Louis?]
A Linux Users Group is a place for Linux users to get together to
discuss topics of interest and help each other. It ends up being a
social, technical, and professional organization (roughly in that
order). It's a place you can come to learn new things, ask questions,
and get general support. LUGs provide a community that's an important
part of the Free Software eco-system.
The St. Louis LUG community is pretty active. There are many groups
that range from assisting brand new Linux users to those writing
programs for GNU/Linux. The St. Louis Linux Users Group (STLLUG --
http://www.stllinux.org) aims to be the central focus to help steer
people toward the sub-group that is right for them.
> Have you seen local interest in and or use of gnu/linux/free
> software increase in the last few years? If so, to what do you
> attribute this increase ?
Yes, it's increased quite a bit. A lot of what we see in the LUGs is
based on hobbyist interest. But a lot of us also use GNU/Linux at work.
Linux has improved a lot over the years, which is why it is gaining
more acceptance as time goes by.
> How would you say the quality of free software stacks up to its
> commercial counterparts [specifically operating system software and
> office software] ?
I'd say that GNU/Linux has surpassed Windows (the primary commercial OS)
on the OS side as far as quality. That's why Linux is so popular on the
server -- its stability, in addition to its flexibility. You'll notice
that GNU/Linux tends to have fewer security holes than Windows, despite
the fact that the source code is available for anyone to examine for
vulnerabilities. I think that says a lot about its quality.
As far as office productivity software, that's one of the weaker points
of GNU/Linux. OpenOffice has taken a big step, but it's still not as
easy to use as Microsoft Office, especially if you're used to using
Microsoft Office. But again, we've seen a lot of progress. In addition,
I've noticed that Gnumeric has pretty much caught up with Excel for
And for network office tasks (email, web, etc.) I think Linux has
surpassed Windows, with Mozilla, KMail, Evolution, and others.
Recently, great strides have been made in getting these to work with
Exchange in addition to the already excellent support of open
> What is the advantage of free software for the average computer
> user? How about for a small business?
The initial thing that brings in almost all the users is of course the
price. This does provide an obvious advantage. But once they have
started using GNU/Linux, they notice a few other advantages:
- Stability. Linux systems stay running longer than Windows systems,
with less problems (especially once you get them running).
- Power. Because GNU/Linux is based on UNIX, it provides a wealth of
small utility programs that can be put together in scripts to
do system administration tasks that the authors never considered.
I noticed that Windows Server 2003 has added a lot of these types
of commands, because you can't automate clicking on buttons for
- Flexibility. GNU/Linux provides flexibility, because you aren't
constrained by what the vendors or authors think you want.
You are free to pick and choose what you want on your system,
and customize it as much as you want.
- Lower TCO. Because of command-line access and scripting, a single
administrator can maintain more systems. In addition, you're
never forced to pay to upgrade to the latest version.
- Control. In the long run, this may actually be the biggest
advantage. You have ultimate control of your own systems.
No vendor can force you to upgrade. You don't have to wait
for a vendor to fix a bug, patch a hole, or add a feature.
As long as you can find one programmer who can modify the code,
you can update it yourself.
And for a lot of us, it's just fun to see what we can do with it.
> How can the average local computer user get started with
> gnu/linux/free software?
All the various LUG meetings in the area are free and open to the
public. We have a fairly complete list of are LUG meetings in the
SLUUG (St. Louis UNIX Users Group) newsletter, available at
http://www.sluug.org/cronicle/. Just come -- no need to call ahead.
The STLLinux.org and SLUUG web sites provide other resources as well. We
have a discussion mailing list, which is a great place to ask technical
questions if you can't make it to a meeting.
We also hold special events on occasion. A couple of times a year, we
hold InstallFests. An InstallFest is an opportunity for folks to bring
their computers in, and we help them install GNU/Linux. (We do request
that people sign up for the InstallFests, so we know how many people to
expect and can schedule the installs.) Our next InstallFest is
scheduled for March 9, 2003. We'll have details on the web site soon.
> Does software licensed under the GPL or compatible license
> ultimately restrict and limit the licensee or give her more
> freedom than software available under a conventional license?
This is a philosophical question that divides the Free Software movement
from the Open Source movement. (It's actually one of the few things
they disagree on.) The trick of the GPL is that the only restriction is
that you cannot restrict someone else's rights. The Free Software folks
are of the opinion that giving someone the right to take away someone
else's rights reduces freedom. The Open Source folks tend to believe
that the author should have the freedom to decide what rights to give
to others. Most of us in the GNU/Linux community fall somewhere in
I sat in on a class taught by Scott Granneman at Washington University a
few months ago. The course was on technology and society. The topic
that night was Open Source and Free Software. The class sat down and
examined the Microsoft End User License Agreement (EULA) and the GNU
General Public License (GPL). They read the text of both licenses. What
they found was that the entire text of the GPL is centered around
*giving* rights to the user, and the EULA was a (difficult-to-read)
contract *taking away* as many rights as possible -- including many
that cannot even be legally waived by contract.
There's even a good argument to be made that the EULA is *not* a valid
contract, because it explicitly claims that the software has no value.
To be a valid contract, there must be some exchange of value. On the
other hand, the GPL says that you *don't* have to agree to it, and you
can still *use* the software. But you *do* have to agree to the license
in order to modify or redistribute the software, because copyright law
defaults to disallowing those rights.
> With the recent increase in gnu/linux in enterprise and primary
> spots in the marketing campaigns by major corporations like IBM and
> Oracle do you think gnu/linux is in danger of being coopted by
> corporate interests?
No. I think the chances of GNU/Linux being coopted are pretty slim. The
license requires that any changes be allowed to be given away freely.
While individual programs run on Linux can use other licenses, the base
system will always remain free. I believe that the more "freedom"
conscious distributions like Debian GNU/Linux will always make sure
that there is a viable completely free version of Linux available.
> Is free software under fire? I have read that some legislation like
> the Digital Millennium Copyright Act potentially makes some free
> software illegal. Is this true? Is more legislation like this
> coming down the pipe?
Yes, there are currently many attacks on the freedoms that allow us to
use our computers as we wish. The DMCA is one of the most ridiculous.
It presumes that anything that allows you to create a digital copy is
used to steal copyrighted works. When in actuality, the vast majority
of copying is of one's own works. DRM (Digital Rights/Restrictions
Management) is the technology that makes this presumption; the DMCA
makes circumventing DRM illegal. This effectively gives DRM developers
legislative powers. The threat to Free Software is that providing the
source code to any Free Software program allows anyone to change any
DRM code to be circumvented.
Another threat is software patents. Until recently, ideas could not be
patented, only physical processes. Software patents allow a monopoly on
ideas. Physical patents don't prevent others from building a better
mouse-trap -- only from building it the same way as the patent holder.
Software patents basically prevent others from building any mouse-trap.
Compound that with the number of patents that are being granted for
obvious and already existing technologies (which patent law says should
not be granted), and you effectively cannot create a new software
product without violating numerous patents. The biggest problem for the
GNU/Linux community is that most of the software is written by
individuals and small companies without the resources to fight a patent
The community is also concerned with the extended term of copyrights.
Our community sees the value of "standing on the shoulders of giants"
and uses the GPL and other licenses to allow consumers/users *more*
rights now, instead of taking them away as long as possible. [Read any
of Lawrence Lessig's work for more info on copyright issues, especially
CreativeCommons.org and "The Future of Ideas".]
In essence, the Free Software community is concerned with the balance of
power being tipped too far in favor of "content producers" at the
expense of the "consumer". Whether it be making digital VCRs illegal,
DRM, the DMCA, software patents, copyright extension, or one of many
others, we believe that giving power to the "consumers" to take
existing works and create new works benefits society as a whole. Note
that we want *balance*, not a complete removal of the rights of
> Is free software inherently anticapitalist ?
First of all, the people writing the software don't really care --
they just want to write something that works for them, and they also
hope that their work may be useful to others. Is donating to charity
anti-capitalist? Does it matter?
To further answer your question, what does capitalism mean? It's based
on the idea that to stimulate economic growth, fair competition is
Free Software in no way stifles competition. Witness the GNOME and KDE
projects -- they contain programs written using very different
technologies; programs which compete directly with each other for user
share. But they also cooperate, allowing programs from the one project
to work on the other system. The projects also work to create new
standards to improve consistency and interoperability.
Other examples of competition in Free Software are:
- the various GNU/Linux distributions
- Linux vs. BSD
- vi vs. Emacs
- RPM vs. DEB
- PostgreSQL vs. MySQL (and several others)
The fact is that Free Software *guarantees* unlimited competition.
Anyone is free to take an existing Free Software program, modify it in
any manner he sees fit, and give it away -- or charge for it -- as long
as he makes the modified copy available to everyone under the same
terms that he received it.
I think your question may be based on the premise that giving something
away for free is somehow anti-capitalist. But the entire capitalist
system is based on the idea that competition will drive prices down as
far as possible. And since the cost of creating 1 additional copy of a
digital file is nearly zero, I believe it was inevitable that Free
Software would come into being.
Given that the price of copying digital content is nearly zero, it seems
somewhat absurd that you can keep charging large amounts of money for
every copy, even once you've paid for it's production many times over.
(Microsoft makes an 80% profit on Windows -- try doing that with a
physical product. I suspect that most of that 20% is the box and
administrative costs.) So whoever succeeds in gaining a substantial
market share is going to end up with a *really* large profit, and it
was probably inevitable that the vendor of the software that nearly
everyone depends on would parlay that profit into a monopoly position.
Note that a monopoly is *very* anti-capitalist -- it removes
competition, hurting consumers and the public in general. That's why
capitalist governments figured out that they had to regulate monopolies
and ensure that they don't use their monopoly power to gain unfair
access to new markets. And of course, they don't restrict the right to
*be* a monopoly, just using it for anti-competitive behavior.
It's kind of ironic that the capitalist system creates such an
anti-capitalist monopoly, but I suppose that's due to an exponential
network effect but a limited number of consumers.
[Well, I suppose you wanted some blurbs and quotes, but I went and wrote
a whole 8-page manifesto. I hope you don't have a word limit for your
article! ;) Anyway, feel free to use any of this, as long as you keep
it in context and provide attribution. Feel free to contact me for more
-- I may not be quick to respond, but I will be verbose.]
Thanks for listening,
Craig M. Buchek
St. Louis Linux Users Group (Chair for nearly another month)
St. Louis UNIX Users Group (board member)
MCSE, MCP, CNE, CNA, CCNA, LPIC-1, LCA, etc., etc.
St. Louis Unix Users Group - http://www.sluug.org/
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