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The Vikings, eBooks, and Open Source

Marcel Gagné, LPI:

A few months ago, Microsoft announced that they were getting out of the eBook business starting in July; meaning now. If you didn't know that Microsoft had been in the eBook business, you can be forgiven. It also goes a long way to explaining why they are getting out of the eBook business. Unfortunately, for those who bought eBooks from Microsoft, a painful lesson is coming home to roost. Those books will stop working.

To be fair to Microsoft, they are refunding customers for the books they never really owned, even though they paid for it. You might still have a copy of the book, but you can no longer read it. The reason they stop working is because of DRM, or Digital Rights Management. DRM allows companies, like Microsoft, to put digital locks on the things you thought you bought and you thought you owned (like those eBooks) with the intention of making it impossible to copy, share, and/or pirate. In fact, it's just hard, not impossible, but that's a story for another time.

We could spend a lot of time here talking about the evils of DRM, of whether we actually own anything we 'buy' electronically, but what I want to talk about is the future. Somewhere, in that future, you may want to read a book you bought, or listen to a song, or watch a movie, or go back to archived data from a spacecraft that landed on another planet decades ago.

Imagine if classic works like "Hamlet" or "Frankenstein" were written in a format that could not be read by modern technology and you start to get the idea. If for no other reason than to "future-proof" those books, music, or data, we need to make sure that no media ever gets recorded in a closed or DRM'ed format.

Open Source licenses, properly executed, work to ensure that the code from which applications are built, is not only freely available in a 'share and share alike' fashion, but also that programs can be extended, modified, or maintained long after the developers have moved on. Open document and image formats, properly executed, work to ensure that future generations, or applications, will be able to read them. Open music formats work to ensure that you and your loved one's favourite song will still be playable in your golden years.

We are often reminded that Open Source is big business these days, a fact that I don't deny, but it's important that we never lose sight of that word, "Open". We, as customers and technologists, must demand that our information, in whatever form it takes, remains open and unencumbered by digital locks.

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