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The artist as a young hacker

The News and Observer- July 2, 2003

Elliot McGucken, a part-time physics professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is just back from an open-source software conference -- the conference on Open Source Content Management, or OSCOM -- at Harvard. While there, McGucken, 33, and his colleague Blake Waters discussed Authena, an open-source program for artists, musicians, photographers and authors. Authena allows creative types to sell their work online while controlling their rights to the material. Connect's Christina Dyrness caught up with McGucken -- who also started the Web site www.jollyroger.com, which is devoted to classic books -- on the Chapel Hill campus and tried to get him to talk about Authena, which is a project sponsored by the Durham-based Center for the Public Domain. Q.Let's start at the beginning. What is Authena?


A.It's about the application of open-source to the arts. And it also kind of ties into the rise of the artist hacker. Because when you look at the Linux operating system, it's all created by hackers.


Q.How are you defining hackers in this sense?


A.It's a benevolent hacker. Someone who's just having fun programming. Not somebody who is breaking into government systems. I think that's the original definition. But, basically, it has kind of progressed beyond people who just code [the programming languages] C and C++ to kind of easier languages such as PHP -- that's pre-hypertext processing; it's a common Web programming language. And built on that is what you call LAMP applications, and that stands for Linux, Apache [an open-source Web server], MySQL [an open-source database] and PHP. And the LAMP applications, most of them are for managing content.


Q.Like content on a Web site?


A.Exactly. You have your PostNuke [open-source software with applications for managing Web sites], which includes galleries for instance. And message boards, discussion forums, you can put in a calendar, classifieds, you can stream media off of it. So then where Authena comes in is taking that and marrying a little bit of digital rights management to it. And then also integrating osCommerce , which is an e-commerce application, to the gallery. And all of a sudden, you have something you can upload your pictures to, define rights and sell them.


Q.How is this different than what else is out there in terms of digital rights management? Controlling rights to online content is a hot topic right now.


A.Basically, it's all open-source based. So all the applications are open source.


Q.Which means they're free.


A.Right. It's the exact same paradigm, free software. They're all released under the GNU public license. So once you get it, you're free to look at all the code and change it, but you also inherit the original license, which means that all subsequent releases must also be free. So that's why these things grow in huge ways because so many people end up participating. But at the Harvard OSCOM conference, we said that Authena has kind of brought osCommerce into the fold. Basically what it does is allow you to manage media but also be compensated for it. In layperson's terms, if you're in a band or you're a photographer, you can basically, with a few clicks, install these applications and then sell your photographs or your music online.


Q.So if I'm a photographer and I want to build my own Web site, this is what I would use to do it?


A.Yes. VVGallery is the actual program. It stands for Vincent Van Gallery. ... [The vvgallery.org has many paintings by Van Gogh.]


Q.How did you get involved with Authena?


A.Oh. I guess I started it. (laughs) That's a good way to get involved.


Q.When was that?


A.It was last summer when I started thinking about it. And it was kind of around December or January when I did one of the first SourceForge projects for it, which was VVGallery.


Q.And what does it mean to be a SourceForge project?


A.SourceForge is kind of a collection of all the world's open-source projects. And there are thousands and thousands of them on there. And it's not just the collection, but it's also the mechanism by which people can go on and collaborate. So it's really, clean nice software. It allows you to assign bug fixes, it has discussion forums, it manages downloads and it allows other people to put in updates.


Q.So did you recruit other people to work on Authena or did people just find it through SourceForge?


A.There's a student at UNC working on it with me. Blake Waters, he works at Ibiblio [an online library run out of UNC-CH]. And at the Harvard conference we ran into the guys who are doing the Tiki project. They're integrating the Authena protocols into Tiki. And Tiki is an open-source content management system; it's one of the leading ones on SourceForge.


Q.What does that mean, to integrate the protocols?


A.All types of media have three different versions. You have the pristine original, which is the big, glossy picture. And then you have a thumbnail, which is for browsing purposes. And then you can have a watermarked version, which is the pristine original, but with the watermarking across it.


Q.What is the purpose of that?


A.First of all, it can convey the rights, who owns it, when it was taken, that kind of thing. But it also renders it useless for you to use in products, unless you pay to get rid of it. If you throw a watermarked image in a book, everyone knows where it comes from. So it makes it difficult to pirate or steal. And that extends to music. For instance, if you had a song, the thumbnail would be kind of a 10-second sound clip. And then the watermarked version is something that would have degraded quality or some kind of stamp that was written into the MP3. So basically the whole idea with Authena -- for example in VVGallery, you have the gallery, where you upload photos and it thumbnails them and everything, and then you have osCommerce where the photos exist and people can browse them, and then they can pay to download the pristine original.


Q.So is Authena up and running anywhere other than VVGallery?


A.The thing about Authena is that it's not written as a stand-alone application. It's written as a parallel application. The whole idea is to integrate it with all these different protocols, like Tiki. If you could picture a whole world where everybody could upload content to their own personal server and then they could choose marketplaces to sell it in. So if you're a band and you have a certain sound, there might be somebody running a record label using all of this software. So if you get an account there and hit the publish button, all of a sudden all of your content shows up in their e-commerce place. Then if it gets sold through there, you get compensated for it.


Q.This is a project sponsored by the Center for the Public Domain. How are they involved?


A.They pay my salary. They pay Blake. And they give us money to go to conferences.


Q.So is there a point when you're done?


A.(Laughs.) No. Never. It always goes in stages. It's kind of strange because open-source is always evolving and always moving forward. So it's just something you can see almost never being done. Of course there's a point where you can be done and then other people take over. It's a lot of fun. I've gotten some good feedback, like there's a guy in Singapore who has downloaded VVGallery and is using it.


Q.What do you get out of it? If Authena does well and a lot of people are using it; what's in it for you?


A.There's a bunch of different things. One is it's just fun working on the theoretical, academic points of it. I guess that's what I was trained to do in grad school. And then there's the possibility of also turning it into a business or something like that. And collaborating with people who use it for business purposes.


Q.Are you still doing JollyRoger.com?


A.Yeah. I found out I never have to update it, because it's devoted to great books. That was a few years ago when I realized that, going "Wait, Shakespeare is still going to be a classic 20 years from now." It's also a great thing for the discussion forums. If you have a discussion forum for Eminem or Britney Spears, 10 years from now people might not care. But 100 years from now people are still going to be typing in "Was Hamlet insane?" And still nobody's going to know the answer.




© Copyright 2003, The News & Observer All material found on newsobserver.com is copyrighted The News& Observer and associated news services. No material may be reproduced or reused without explicit permission from The News & Observer.

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