viznut's amazing discoveries

[2007-08-14]

Can public domain software be proprietary?

According to Wikipedia, Jeskola Buzz is "a proprietary modular software music studio".

"Proprietary", what the hell?

The last time I checked, Buzz was completely freeware (public domain), and the author couldn't care less about who uses it and how.

Following the "proprietary" link in Wikipedia, we come to the following definition: "Proprietary software (also called non-free software) is software with restrictions on using, copying and modifying as enforced by the proprietor." After this statement, the article, with all of its unintentional irony, goes on to talk about Free Software Foundation and the General Public License.

So, in the mindset of a certain branch of Wikipedia zealots:

Indeed, there seems to be something nasty going on in the minds of these people who accept definitions as Orwellian as these.

I'm not going to rant about the religious dogma of open-source zealots, however. Rather, I'd like to talk about the relationship of the open-source movement, the hacker culture and the demoscene.

First of all, Buzz is a typical piece of demoscene software. It has been released for free distribution and free usage, however the source code is not available, as it has never been customary on the demoscene to release the source. There is some open-source demoscene software, yes, but most of the material is released as plain executables for a single platform.

On the other hand, the availability of source code is among the most important values for "mainstream hackers". If you do not always release the source code, you are evil, secretive and against all the other hacker values as well.

This looks like a profound contradiction between the demoscene and "mainstream hackers" on this matter. However, I don't actually see a big gap at all. Let me explain.

The demoscene has its roots in the software cracker culture of the 1980s. For the crackers, all the software of the world was free for cracking, hacking, modification and distribution, and no one cared about that stupid legal mumbo-jumbo of the adult world.

It can even be said that all microcomputer software was "open-source", at least for the crackers who actively analyzed and modified the binaries and ripped parts of them into their own programs. In most cases, microcomputer programs had been written in an assembler or a machine code monitor to begin with, so the monitor disassembly you looked at indeed was more or less the actual "source code".

Some programs were extensively hacked and modified despite being "closed-source". A good example is Soundtracker, the father of all trackers. Several groups improved it with straight binary-level hacking, some other groups improved these improved versions and so on. Another example is the C-64 Turbo Assembler which is still under "unofficial underground development" although the last official version was released in 1985.

In summary, what we had in the 1980s was something like a "free software culture" but with binary-hacking instead of source-hacking, and with no one caring about licences, laws or copyrights.

However, in the 1990s, as microcomputer software became increasingly complex (high-level languages and stuff) and the demoscene shifted away from its cracker roots, the binary-hacking tradition was lost.

So, in my point of view, there isn't that great a gap at all between demoscene and mainstream hacking, at least if the "core values" are considered. There's just a difference in emphasis.

That is, while the open-source movement emphasizes collaborative development of software, the demoscene is more like a collective quest for new ways of doing things. This, combined with the do-it-yourself attitude, is why it is not considered as important to be able to build on other people's work. If you want to do something from scratch in a different way, you just don't need a large base of existing source code for it.

Some bloggers have been arguing that the demoscene is "secretive" because most of the releases do not include source code. This is just as horribly wrong as it is to call Jeskola Buzz "proprietary" merely due to the lack of source code.

And by the way, despite all this rant, I generally prefer free software and would also like to see a greater percentage of demomaking tools being open-source. I don't care so much about the sources of the demos themselves, however.