Mast Kalandar

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Fri, 10 Feb 2006

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Shockwave Flash and copyright

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Mike Orr wrote:

One comment and then I'll shut up. How is accepting Flash documents different from accepting Word documents?

I did some more googling^Wresearch and found out a bit. Sorry for the rather long mail. I hope it serves to inform rather than wake up the trolls.

  1. The official Flash specification is in fact only available under a strange licensing agreement which specifically forbids the licensee from developing a Flash Player. Its sole purpose is to help people develop Flash Writers. (Ref:

+1 to AFA (= Anti-Flash-Advocacy)

  1. There are currently at least 5 projects under way to develop a Flash Player without reading the specification. Actually, one of them (gplflash) has merged into gnash. gnash and swfdec seem to be the most promising. As said earlier the latter already "seems to work".

-1 to AFA

  1. The projects seem to be based on the time-honoured technique used by Samba, Abiword et al---"Reverse Engineering" in its completely legal sense.

+1 to AFA if you believe Samba and OpenOffice are doomed to play catch-up all the time.

  1. There are a number of SWF content generators that are FLOSS. After all the writers of such generators are encouraged to read the official Flash specification as published. See for details.

-1 to AFA

Frankly, I am confused by MacroMedia's bizarre license but it isn't the first time someone has given a new and strange twist to software copyright.

ljmoore at wightman dot ca wrote:

Kapil Hari Paranjape wrote:

In a sense yes. You can read the spec but you can't use the knowledge you gained to write a viewer!

Give me a second to absorb that -

The swf data format is a work of art that may be viewed but not be copied or derived from? A Norman Rockwell painting and the Rockwell estate? Gatta be a lawyer, I guess? I write a perl script that translates swf to jpeg, share it then expect to be threatened with legal face time. SIGH!

It seems that is even more complex than I thought. Apparently (according to the authors of swfdec and gnash recently interviewed on LWN) in order to work on a swf renderer you should never have accepted the EULA for the proprietary viewer. Some have claimed that it is OK to have accepted the license in the past as long as you have now transferred the rights you so obtained to someone else (How? By signing a letter transferring your rights of course!).

That is wierd.

So you can write your perl script as long as you have never downloaded/installed the "free" (as in beer) player distributed by MacroMedia (and now Adobe).

Other "closed" formats

Mike also wrote comparing this to Word/SMB/CSS DVDs/PDF and postscript. However,

"You are in a maze of twisty passages all different"

As far as I can see all these caes are different. I personally never thought of Postscript and PDF as being proprietary formats since I never used proprietary PS/PDF generators and none of my correspondents ever did so.

A rather long postscript(*) follows on what I understand to be the "restrictive usage" issues dealing with these formats.

(*) Couldn't resist the pun :)

Executive summary: I think Ben is right in calling Flash a lesser evil than either Word or RealPlayer but then that is a matter of opinion and a lesser evil is nonetheless an evil.


In order of Evilitude or is it Evility (which is the opposite of civility)


I recall that one could buy the RGB books of postscript that described the language in great detail; and there was no clause in those books that said "thou shalt not write something called ghostscript that implements this language". What did happen is that there was a section of postscript that allowed each printer to have its own proprietary PS dictionary. A "driver" for that printer then used operators from that dictionary to enhance printing and the resulting postscript files did not work well with ghostscript of course. Postscript files that were generated using tools like "dvips" which were based on the RGB books alone, worked fine with ghostscript and with most PS printers. As people started exchanging PS files over the net these proprietary extensions became a hindrance and were mostly dropped.


Maybe I'm wrong but PDF was Adobe's "network"-if-ied version of Postscript. They tried to build in the proprietary extensions in a way that they would be network transparent but again were largely unsuccessful. There is of course, the "default 16 fonts" issue (that was in some sense an issue with PS as well) but as long as you had reasonable substitutes for those fonts everything worked just fine. Again documents that were generated using tools like "pdflatex" that included all the fonts/glyphs used worked fine with all readers. What "xpdf" cannot currently do are the fancy "transitions" like "Dissolve"---I don't know why this is so, but it has not bothered me since I don't care for it. To me encrypted PDF is like encrypted DVD's---if someone doesn't want me to enjoy their creativity---I won't.


Andrew Tridgell and folks (a big salute to them) patiently gathered network traffic in order to decode the way in which SMB was spoken and wrote clients/servers in some ways better than the original. Of course, the MicroSoft will continue to improve/modify(:)) their protocol but existing deployment prevents them from introducing incompatibilities that would break Samba as it would probably break Windows 95/98 as well. Note that Samba has (always had?) some security features over and above that offered by the proprietary version so in principle a number of people did switch over to Samba servers instead of proprietary servers. When enough people do that the proprietary protocol is under pressure to be more compatible with the "discovered" specification and avoid proprietary "enhancements".

Word/Powerpoint etc.

Some major effort of catch-up was required here but it does seem as if the current version of OpenOffice can deal with many MicroSoft generated documents. Again OO has added features to its software (like incorporation of LaTeX) which are not automatically available with the default MS offering. This and its slightly better security status could lead to enough people using it to pressurise MS to keep to "discovered" specs.


They disclose so little I don't think there is anything to say here. To use a phrase from Joerg Schilling out of context "RealPlayer is the most self-incompatible piece of software that I know".


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