September 16, 2008

Open Source and the Creative Commons

By WALLES, Hayden

Open source software is more than a catchphrase and may even change the future of copyright, writes Hayden Walles. -------------- ------ Open source software may sound like just another passing buzzphrase, but it is no fly-by-nighter. It has been around for decades and we have all relied on it for some time, as more and more people are coming into direct contact with open source, it's a good time to ask what makes it so special.

The source here is source code, the human-readable (or at least programmer-readable) form of a computer program.

Computer programs are written in various programming languages (source code) and then translated by computer into instructions a computer can follow directly (machine code). To run the program you only need the machine code. To discover how a program works, or make changes, the source code is essential.

Almost none of the software used by the typical computer user comes with source code. Software giants like Microsoft and Adobe treat source code as a trade secret. After all, the argument goes, these programs are the fruits of their labour; why should they let anyone else study their inner workings? This is closed source, or proprietary, software.

Open source software takes the opposite approach. Not only does the software come with source, but recipients are also allowed to make changes and pass it on to others without charge. The original author gives up the tight control over their source - and the revenue it could bring them - in the hope that the software will be enriched even if they are not.

Open source is supposed to encourage better software by allowing more eyes to inspect and correct existing code and providing solid foundations on which new projects can be built. The technical value of opening source up to exploitation by all is supposed to outweigh the monetary value of selling closed copies.

Open source goes back a long way, but as an organised movement has its roots in the 1980s when the Free Software Foundation (FSF) was created by former MIT programmer Richard Stallman.

For many who use the term, open source is merely a good model for software production. For Stallman and the FSF, though, openness is not just a good way to write software, but the only moral way. He and his supporters prefer the term free software, hastily adding that this is free in the sense of "free speech" not "free beer".

Computer programs, they argue, are a good to all humanity that should not be locked up by one company or individual.

Open source software is about making good software; free software is about making good societies.

The political inspiration behind free software principles has spread to other contentious areas of copyright.

During a recent visit to New Zealand Stallman encouraged this branching out. In his eyes all forms of human expression, from computer programs to novels and movies, should be freely copyable by anyone. He would accept limits on modifying artistic and intellectual works - but only for 10 years.

It's not just hot air, either. When Wikipedia says it is a free encyclopaedia, it means it in the same sense as the FSF. There are now open source textbooks and many universities have started making their course material free.

There are a few nascent attempts to wrest scientific papers from the hands of academic publishers and make them freely available.

There is free music, including high-profile experiments like Radiohead's downloadable album In Rainbows.

Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig has founded Creative Commons, an organisation that helps simplify the legalities of distributing free photos, videos, writing and so on.

This all sounds very nice and friendly, but if everything can be freely copied who pays for anything to be created?

The traditional argument for copyright is that the creators - whether artists, programmers or writers - must have an incentive, and that incentive is the money they can get selling copies of their creations. At the very least, the creators have to eat.

Open source software has responded to this challenge. A few companies get by selling services such as training and support for openly developed software.

In other cases the usefulness or importance of an open source program attracts funding for its development. Companies based in cyberspace, for example, have good reason to fund development of the software that keeps the internet running.

For less functional free content like books and music the challenge seems harder to meet but proponents say it is possible to reward the creators.

Stallman proposes public support provided through taxation, voluntary payments or a mixture of the two.

It is still too early to see the ultimate fate of open source and free content.

Consider, though, that even Microsoft and Apple, the symbols of the proprietary approach, both support and fund open source software. Is this just exploitation of the naive - or is it a sign that even the largest commercial enterprises of the internet age are powerless to resist the pull of open source?

* Hayden Walles is earning a PhD in computer science at Otago University.



Open source software is everywhere. While Apple's Mac OS X and iPhone OS contain many proprietary additions, both are based on open source. Linux is an open source operating system, an alternative to Microsoft Windows and other proprietary systems. Google and many other web services are provided via machines running Linux, and it is commonly used in universities and business. Linux can run on any PC and a few desktops and laptops come with it already installed. Half the sites on the web rely on an open source web server called Apache behind the scenes. Much of the software behind things like email, message boards and many other features of the internet is open source. On the desktop there is the increasingly popular Firefox web browser as well as Google's new web browser, Chrome. There is even, an open source alternative to Microsoft's Office suite. This is just a sample of the more visible open source projects. There are thousands of projects out there, many developed by volunteers, catering to all kinds of specialist needs.


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