Tapping The Source: How Free Software And The Open Source Movement Will Change Our Lives

 

 

Looking beyond the last decades across the annals of recent history, human development is marked by periods of upheaval and discovery. Often this involves the mass overhaul of economic and belief systems, or innovations in production networks that carry philosophical import. Events such as the French Revolution or the invention of the combustible engine not only evince changes in our politico-economic landscape, they affect a paradigmatic shift that registers in the collective consciousness. While hindsight affords us the space to study these momentous occasions in the way that they deserve, contemporary times are such that technological advancements (our favorite measure of “progress” over time) continue to proceed at an unprecedented rate, making it near impossible for most 21st century citizen-consumers to understand from whence a product came, let alone question whether there is more to the newest innovation than mere fun and functionality. There is a history of ideas and orchestrated efforts responsible for our current modus operandi and longstanding ideological battles waged within the software and electronics community that we are, for the most part, ridiculously unaware of. And just like in transitional eras of the past, there are very real, very serious repercussions to the social agendas we choose to support and uphold.

1969 is a particularly important year in the history of computing. It was then that the Pentagon began working on ARPANET, an experiment to connect various American research centers through a packet-switching system. Initially consisting of just 4 computers at four different universities, ARPANET would evolve into the largest network ever, now ubiquitously known as the Internet. That same year, the Japanese firm Datapoint designed a simple processing and calculation unit (CPU) that included a chip primarily used as a calculator component. Over the next two years, Intel would transform that very chip into the 4004, the first commercial single-chip microprocessor. To many, this marks the beginning of the electronics revolution. (The 4004 were built of 2,300 transistors; Intel’s latest Itanium chip comes with 1.7 billion silicon transistors.) Additionally, 1969 saw the first modern-day ATM machine appear at a Chemical Bank in New York, and heard the term “software engineer” coined during the first NATO workshop on software development. It is also the year a young hacker named Richard Stallman, then a senior in high school, first came into contact with a computer.

From his first year at Harvard in 1971 to the mid 80s, Stallman worked as a programmer at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, an interdisciplinary research unit whose encouragement of collaboration amongst its crew of computer whiz kids earned it a reputation as one of the foremost-accomplished laboratories. However, with the advent of software that could run on several computers, programmers began protecting their software with licenses that restricted the copying and redistribution of the software’s source code. Stallman found the trend to be stilting, and decried the “proprietary-software social system” as “antisocial” and “unethical.” In 1984 he quit the MIT AI Laboratory to dedicate himself to create a free operating system (the core programs by which applications talk to hardware) called GNU (www.gnu.org). By “free” Stallman meant that the source code could be accessed, modified, and redistributed. He envisioned this transparency as necessary for not only enabling the software user to debug and improve on the original code (thus helping the software evolve), but to also foster collaboration across corporate and cultural divides. Here is a powerful excerpt from the GNU Manifesto published by Stallman in 1985:

 

[excerpt]

 

That same year, Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation (www.fsf.org), a non-profit organization meant to employ programmers of free software and provide a legal infrastructure for the burgeoning free software movement. The FSF also serves to clarify free software’s primary tenants:

 

[excerpt]

 

Working to protect the right to create and use free software legally, Stallman also invented and popularized “copyleft,” a license that uses traditional copyright law to remove restrictions on the distribution of modified copies of software while requiring the same freedoms be preserved in the modified copies. In other words, one can modify the source code of a free software program and then offer it to the public, for free or fee, as long they allow others to tap into the source code of the new version. Copyleft made it easier for other programmers to write free software outside of the GNU project. One such programmer was a Finnish college student named Linus Torvalds, who in 1991 programmed an operating system kernel (a piece of software with core application programs) called Linux which, when combined with the GNU programming, makes for a complete, and free, operating system, (referred to as GNU/Linux). Linux (www.linux.org) is also compatible with other systems, and is protected by a copyleft license developed by Stallman called the GNU General Public License.

The popularity of Linux in commercial (Oracle, IBM, and HP offer Linux-based merchandise) and government sectors (military and intelligence agencies use Linux servers) as well as copyleft’s ability to be applied not only to software, but to documents, music and art as well, have caused quite a stir amongst the giants of industry. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has called Linux “a cancer that attaches itself…to everything it touches.” In an interview on CNet.Com, Bill Gates has implied, without much subtlety, that those who believe in the tenets of free software are communists. Gates is referring to the misconception that copyleft licenses restrict the original programmer from selling his or her software for profit, which it does not. Copyleft simply demands that the source code be accessible, modifiable, and redistributable under the same terms. Free software proponents argue that this creates healthy competition amongst programmers, helping the software evolve at a measurably faster pace. And if certain programmers are profit-motivated, all the more reason for to them to make and market the best possible software. And if they believe in the community they’re a part of, all the more reason to open it to their peers.

Nevertheless, he word “free” attached to any consumer product inevitably scares the majority of companies that rely on sales.  In 1989, in order to make the idea commercially friendly, thereby extending the idea and usage of free software beyond the “underground” programming community, a group of computer scientists met in Palo Alto and coined the phrase “Open Source” to release the idea of free software from its anti-capitalist connotations. A month later, two from that group, Eric S. Raymond and Bruce Perens, formed the Open Source Initiative (OSI; http://www.opensource.org), a non-profit that enunciates the terms by which a software license can be considered open source, titled the Open Source Definition. The list of accepted licenses is surprisingly extensive. Though there are nuanced differences in their licenses and ideological differences between Stallman and the OSI camp, the FSF and OSI are the two primary strongholds that support open development of software.

The social model of the free software/open source movement (characterized by spirited independent peer review) and the freedoms their respective licenses protect (content accessibility, redistribution rights) has had great influence in arenas that, for the laymen, are much more accessible than software programming. Take for instance Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), an online, free-content encyclopedia structured so that all of its content is written by volunteers and edited by the site’s visitors. The English version has over 1 million articles, all of it licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL), which gives readers the same rights to copy, redistribute and modify a work and requires all copies and derivatives to be available under the same license.

The alternative structure of the free software/open source movement and its readily available, inexpensive (often free) software has lent itself to providing a platform for communities of underrepresented voices. Free Internet radio is a phenomenon that open source has helped give legs to. Take for example Los Angeles-based KillRadio.Org, self-described as Anti-Corporate Internet Radio. They use Linux as their operating system and broadcasts are streamed using DarkIce and IceCast, complimentary open-source streaming software solutions. KillRadio is one of nine radio stations that belong to the Critical Mass Radio Network (criticalmassradio.net), organized for the purpose of broadcasting a coordinated signal across the Internet. The network’s decentralized structure and emphasis on collaboration between autonomous nodes or communities reflects much of the free software ideology. The Critical Mass Radio’s “Principles of Unity” expound fairness, friendliness, and even generosity. Just as the FSF considers free software an inalienable liberty, the right to freely broadcast and promote autonomous, non-corporate, community-based radio is arguably embedded in the liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment.

As the fight for open access to and dissemination of information extends beyond software coding to the realm of commercial and artistic production, the conflict becomes one centered upon the concept of Digital Rights Management (DRM), a term that refers to the various monitoring and enforcement technologies that restrict usage of a specific digital work. Proponents of DRM claim such restrictions prevent illegal duplication of a digital work and the consequent loss of revenue (Napster was basically shut down due to this line of reasoning). Critics of DRM argue that corporate entities use DRM to consolidate control of media, thus strangling consumer rights and diminishing the amount of innovative cultural contributions.

Not to be dictated by extremes, the debate over creative control has spawned a fruitful middle ground between “total control” of the work by its creator and the “total freedom” of the consumer. Creative Commons (CC; creativecommons.org) is a non-profit organization established in 1998 that has developed a set of copyright licenses free for public use. Unlike Gnu, these licenses aren’t designed for software, but for other kinds of creative works, including websites, music, film, photography, literature, etc. The Creative Commons licenses offer a range of flexible copyrights that allows people to retain their copyright while licensing them as free for certain uses, and on certain conditions.

In their totality, non-traditional licenses such as those developed by GNU, those approved by the OSI, or those developed by the CC, have allowed formerly fringe socio-political concepts such as non-hierarchical information systems and cooperative pull systems (“push” systems are characterized by centralized and rigid programs of previously specified tasks and behavior; “pull” systems by modularly designed, decentralized platforms connecting a diverse array of participants), as well as basic communal values (such as sharing, people!) to slowly seep into the creation of commercial culture.

In 2002, a Toronto based company named OpenCola released a carbonated cola drink of the same name. The drink’s can direct people to a website that provided the recipe and instructions for making the drink, licensed under a GNU General Public License. No real threat to coca-Cola or Pepsi (both companies keep their recipes under impossibly tight wraps), the drink was meant to promote open source software that the company also produced. Unwittingly, nearly 150,000 cans were sold before the company was bought a year later. Regardless, their recipe, in modified versions, still exists. A near identical recipe is here presented by Cube Cola (http://sparror.cubecinema.com/cube/cola/), a home-lab based in Bristol.

In July of 2005, a group of Copenhagen students, under the mentorship of Rasmus Nielsen of the art collaborative Superflex (http://www.superflex.net/), announced the release of Vores Ol (trans: Our Beer), an open source beer whose recipe is provided on their website (http://voresoel.dk/main.php?id=70) and offered to the public under a Creative Commons license. Anyone can access, use, and change the recipe, but that recipe is also subject to the license. The beer is oddly mixed with guarana, but the true innovation is in the application of open source concepts to the making of a commercial product that would usually be restricted under intellectual property statutes. Similar motives are encouraging creative professionals in other industries to explore open source models for their own work. Open source inspired projects are underway in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, publishing, law, and religion.

Intellectual property rights have their legal basis in the United States Constitution, which grants Congress the authority to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” The founders rightfully expected the power of ownership to act as an economic incentive for invention and industry. The times have of course changed. The current state of society is one in which vast resources are consolidated among a few powerful corporate entities that use their intellectual property assets to manipulate competitors and customers alike. In effect, the free software/open source movement strives to undercut those corporations’ monopoly of power by protecting the rights of individual author-creators with special licenses that also protect the rights of their potential audience. But the battle between proprietary and open system proponents is not just about ownership, it is about the ethical and moral values each system perpetuates, making it necessary for one ask him or herself: does intellectual property trump informational transparency? is a profit margin more important than a product’s evolution? do we value the growth of wealth and power more than the voice of the individual and the health of our communities?

 

 

 

 

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