When a hardware and software hacker meets lawyers and policy wonks.

Before I start to write for this BLOG I want to offer a bit of an introduction, so that the perspective that my articles will take will make sense.

I started out in this business the regular way. I was introduced to computers at school in the early 1980’s, and then buying, studying, designing, modifying, assembling and breaking some of my own computers soon after. While I wrote software in the 80’s, it wasn’t until the early 1990’s that I discovered the software movement that fought to protect a computer owners right to “run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve” software as well. I have been an active part of the Free Software movement since then,. I occasionally use the Open Source term coined in 1998 although I believe that Free/Libre Software is the most accurate name for what I’m interested in.

In the summer of 2001 I was sent an email informing me that Canada was contemplating passing a Canadian version of the USA’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), easily the most hated law in the Internet and Free/Libre Software communities I was part of.

While I still make my money writing software and as a system administrator for Internet servers, what will flavour what I write will be how I look at technology through a social sciences lens. I spend almost as much time these days in conversations with lawyers and bureaucrats as I do technology people.

Given my background, you might expect that I am a hard person to buy Christmas gifts for. In the 1980’s I would subject my parents to catalog numbers from Radio Shack for parts (Integrated Circuits, resisters, capacitors, etc) that they had no possible way of knowing what I was going to do with them. As an adult I’ve decided to buy my own gifts 😉

I participated in the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Give One Get One program, Canadians who participated will only start to get their “get one” in February. I will write more about this educational project later, and why as interesting as the hardware is that it is the Free/Libre Software it uses that is key to the educational goals : back to the “run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve” technology I wrote about above.

My other gift to myself was a Neuros OSD. This is a device that can truly be given the name “Personal Video Recorder” (PVR) as it is the owner that is personally in control of the device, not a third party like a cable/satellite provider or device manufacturer.

The hardware is simple: A/V in/out, LAN connection, serial port, and various memory connections (USB, CF/Microdrive, SD/MS/MMC slot).

It is the software that excited me: this is a Free/Libre Software driven device that allows me to telnet into the machine and make modifications.

Unlike a TiVo or other locked down device that keeps the video locked-up within the device, this is designed to allow people to take control of their multimedia. It is trivial to plug in a USB memory stick and record some video onto it, or to play some music you have stored there. Take a memory card out of your digital camera, plug it into the OSD, and you are able to view pictures on-screen without any fuss. I also wrote some first impressions of this device on another BLOG. In my case I have added my OSD as a device on my LAN, storing all video on a fileserver in my office, and allowing the OSD to access all the audio and video I have stored on that server. That includes audio/video legally downloaded from the Internet, or morally ripped from original CDs and DVDs even if time, space, format and device shifting are all legal grey areas in our backward-facing Canadian copyright law.

The folks at Neuros aren’t just a hardware company using Free/Libre Software as a gimic to sell their hardware. They recently created a campaign called “Unlocked Media” to discuss the importance of our content and devices being “unlocked” from foreign locks (IE: locks applied by the manufacturer rather than the owner). For those interested, I have created a Facebook group to help promote this campaign.

I believe that the owners of technology should have the legally protected right to be in control of that technology for lawful purposes. I don’t believe that intangible exclusive rights (patents, copyright, trademarks, etc) should be able to trump the tangible rights of the owner to study and tinker with what they own for private/personal purposes. Only when something is resold or otherwise publicly distributed should these exclusive rights be relevant.

Unfortunately as I will write about in the future, the basic way that I learned hardware and software is under attack such that owners of hardware will not be able to study, change or improve what they own, or in many cases be able to make their own software choices. We still have some choices left, and should choose “Unlocked Media” whenever possible. This means choosing content not locked to specific devices (Sometimes called “Digital Rights Management” or “Copy control”, although the science behind how this technology reduces copyright is closer to science fiction), as well as hardware and software not locked with foreign locks, or which explicitly enable “user serviceable parts inside”.

You can also get politically active. I host the Digital Copyright Canada website which includes 2 petitions to parliament, sample letters to Canadian MPs, and an active BLOG and series of mailing lists.

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