TechnologyEminem used my code and I'm OK with that
We've come to expect online content to be free, thanks to open source code and Creative Commons licensing. As corporations take advantage of that content, does it pose a danger to the system?
In July of 2009, Sergey Aleynikov was getting ready to board a plane to travel to his new job as a programmer when the FBI descended on him. He was later informed that he was being charged with theft of trade secrets and transportation of stolen property. Aleynikov's former employer, Goldman Sachs, had gone to the feds and claimed that Aleynikov had stolen crucial computer code that would allow him to manipulate markets in unfair ways. Aleynikov says that, in reality, he only copied some open source code that he had put on Goldman Sachs servers and it served no purpose in their system at all. He simply wanted to remember the code for future use. Because of the complicated discourse around computer programming, Aleynikov's defense was difficult to prove and even more difficult to convey to a jury. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. His misfortune illustrates the dangers of putting, pulling, altering and using "free" content online.
Aleynikov was pulled into a legal web and pitted against a wealthy company that either didn't understand the nature of what he was doing or wanted to make an example of him to show future employees to never take anything from their servers. He was eventually cleared of the charges and released on appeal, but it was now apparent that the utopian world of giving away work online had become problematic with the increased participation of corporations.
Software that is distributed by its creator or a company for free or with an optional pay model. WinZip is a quintessential example.
Open source refers the code for software that a developer makes available for free. This allows other developers to modify or improve the code. While open source is a practical model for making code better, it's also a bit of a utopian philosophy.
Dir. Valerie Veach, DP. Alexander Porter
An HBO documentary that explores the world online gaming addiction and its consequences. Alexander Porter, a member of the DepthKit team, photographed various internet cafes and immersive gaming spaces in South Korea and the software was used for a number of vignettes in the film.
What are shareware and open source code?
Shareware and open source are often related but are fundamentally different things. Shareware is any type of software, usually a compiled app, that you are free to distribute without paying a license fee.
Classic shareware was things like WinZip or lots of demos for games. Usually there was a way to pay for a more feature rich version, but not all the time. Shareware had this philosophy of software should be free.
Now open source is fundamentally different, as it pertains to the availability of the actual code as opposed to the software that it produces. When you have access to the code, you're not only free to share the software but modify it, mutate it, and take bits and stick them into your own programs. The philosophy of open source is much more of a utopian information should be free philosophy. There are really well-established codes of conduct around how open source is to be shared, whether it can be used commercially or not, and if derivative products must also be shared.
Over the last several years, I've been working on this thing we are calling the DepthKit, a software package for using depth sensing cameras as cinematic tools. Basically, you can use a Microsoft Kinect as a video camera to make your friends look like digital 3D avatars. The DepthKit is both shareware and open source -- as in we let you download the program and use it as is and also access the code to see how it works. Our open source license is very liberal, MIT License to be exact, and so lots of people, including ourselves, use it commercially. Some notable examples are its appearance in Eminem's video Rap God directed by Richard Lee, and also it recently was used for a portrait of the Kronos Quartet for the New York Times website.
Open source recommendations
from James George
Scott Draves classic Shareware art piece called Electric Sheep — "you download a screensaver and it connects to an internet service to use your computer to compute more and more beautiful fractals. It's some pretty O.G. software art."
openFrameworks, initially created by Zach Lieberman, has provided a streamlined process for coders to get creative. By wrapping a lot of common libraries together, it eliminates many technical headaches and allows programmers to spend their energy making projects that are visually stimulating or playful.
How do you feel about his DepthKit
being put to commercial use?
I'm thrilled that it's found its way into a professional circle and is used to produce videos that millions have seen. My collaborators and I always intended it to be used commercially, as we also rely on it for doing commercial work and to produce artwork that we exhibit and sell. But there has been one surprising challenge that gets at the fundamental difference between shareware and open source. 99.9% of the time, DepthKit is used as shareware, that is people download the app and never need to look at the code. It's certainly easier to use this way, but it misses out on one key advantage of the open source aspect: improvements being contributed back to the platform.
In a healthy Open Source model, anyone who takes a bit of code and uses it will often improve on it, and that improvement can easily find its way back into the original code. This is how open source communities gain strength, through the power in numbers and everyone sharing their contributions. But Shareware is a one-way street, and so for the DepthKit despite all of its use, very little resources come back to allow us to push it forward.
Linux is the most famous and ubiquitous open-source project in history. A crowd sourced operating system, Linux is used by tech companies around the world in countless ways.
As of 2010, sixty percent of servers used for online hosting were running on Linux and the system has been referred to as, “The backbone of the internet.”
The code behind Linux has been used in smart phone devices, video game systems, home theaters, space travel and more. Many of these technologies either wouldn’t exist or would have taken years longer to develop thanks to the free-of-charge labor done by thousands of people.
Rap God by Eminem
Dir. Rich Lee
After several under-the-radar uses of the DepthKit, Eminem's Rap God video became the most high-profile project to include George's image processing software as part of its production techniques. Liars also used the DepthKit
for their video "The Exact Color of Doubt."
The dangers, the benefits
and how to protect yourself
Losing control of a creation: There is an immense loss of control when you let a tool out into the world. I still remember one of the very first pieces that anyone made with the public version was an artsy erotica. At first I was dismayed, but as a wide range of other examples began to emerge I look back at it as one of the most interesting applications. I think the only thing that really gets me are when it's used with poor technical execution, which can reflect badly on the tool's capabilities. It's totally out of our hands though.
The benefits of corporate collaboration: The big one is Microsoft providing the Kinect. The fact that the toolkit was born out of a semi-subversive hack that let us use the Kinect on a PC when it was intended for an XBox is ancient history now. The fact is that Microsoft is in full support of the Toolkit and we have close relationships with the Kinect team and Microsoft Research - in fact I did an artist residency there where I got to work directly with the team to produce new projects. So the corporate ties go deep.
How to protect yourself against abuse: If you're producing open source code and you don't want anyone to monetize your work, choose a license like GPL that enforces anyone using it to also share-alike. In terms of what the application it's used for, that's a trickier matter. All of the legal frameworks around open source are about protecting your intellectual property, not your taste. So there isn't much recourse you have when someone at DARPA starts using your art drawing code for their drone strike interfaces or someone uses your cinema toolkit for a snuff film. At best, you'll be forced into a dialog with them where you can discuss your differences.
In November 2014, Flickr became the subject of outrage from many of its users when the image-hosting service began selling photos that had been uploaded by its community under a Creative Commons (CC) license.
While the license permits Flickr to reuse the images in any way they want, the move was considered to be bad form. Though Flickr discontinued the practice in December of 2014, the damage that had been done is still yet to be seen. Not only will many users have a sense of distrust for the company, but the repercussions could affect future uploaders willingness to designate a CC license, depriving the internet of an excellent source of images for reuse.
Cover image: Eminem