BT et C

Monday, September 25, 2006

Back in the Saddle

Well, I've done it again -- let a couple months go by without a post. Meh. Apologies.

This week I bring you some more problems of language. I generally insist upon a certain specificity when I argue, especially about topics (political ones especially) that elicit strong emotions. For example, I dislike the term "intellectual property" and never use it. When others use it, I gently discourage them from confusing themselves and others in this way.

A number of people I converse with online don't agree and think the term is harmless, so I'd like to throw out an example of how such imprecise terminology leads to muddy thinking. Very muddy thinking.

This is from a Q&A session with Chris Sontag of SCO, in 2004.

Question: Hi, I understand that you insist on the respect of copyrights. And I think everyone in this room would agree with you on the respect of copyrights. However, SCO's currently distributing GPL software products such as Samba in some of own SCO products. Since you believe that the GPL is invalid, I was wondering under what license are you currently distributing Samba and other such products?

Note that the question is specific, and uses the specific term "copyright" which is well defined in the law.

Sontag: We, Darl's mentioned earlier that SCO has participated in many open source projects, has made contributions to open source projects, doesn't have issues with open source projects that the IP basis of that work is sound. Same with our participation with Samba and with other GPL or other open source projects. So we continue to participate in some open source projects, Samba being one of them. And we do have concerns with the GPL, and the GPL may have to be reworked, changed, a new license put in place. But in terms of ... as far we are aware right now there are no issues in terms of IP with Samba that we're aware of right now. And so we continue to participate with that.

Note the plethora of vague terms like "IP" and "issues". Also note that Sontag comes nowhere near the subject matter of the question. A responsive answer to "under what license... ?" would be the name of a license. "We're distributing it under the MIT License" perhaps. A responsive and correct answer would be "we are distributing it without a license."

There are obvious problems with standing in front of a roomful of people and saying "we are distributing other people's copyrighted work without a license" particularly if one hopes to be viewed as a champion of "intellectual property rights" at the dawn of the new millenium, or whatever. I'd like to focus on how Sontag's fuzzy language leads to an unintentionally hilarious statement: "But in terms of ... as far we are aware right now there are no issues in terms of IP with Samba that we're aware of right now" Hilarious not simply because it's replete with stammering and redundancy, but because it's an outright lie on the face of it:

The question stated an 'issue in terms of IP with Samba'. That's what the question was about: "Aren't you violating people's 'intellectual property' when you distribute Samba?" is a good paraphrase of the question. It is as thought someone played a Chopin piece on the piano and said "That's Chopin. Do you like Chopin?" and Sontag replied "I've never heard a Chopin piece."

I view this sort of discourse as a disease in our society. I have ideas about its root cause, and some about its cure, but will save those for another day.