a world without fences who needs gates?" The
question on the T-shirt flags the developing struggle
between Microsoft, led by Bill Gates, and its rapidly
growing open source software rivals. The arguments
around patents, copyright and software mark another
decisive failure for hypocritical advocates of "free
trade". Perhaps only on agricultural policy are
neo-liberal arguments more obvious as shameless propaganda
for monopoly capitalism.
term open source software - the opposite of proprietary
software - applies to computer applications made freely
available under a public license agreement so anyone
can adapt and improve them. The most common complaints
about Microsoft's proprietary software programs are
their relatively high cost and that, when they break
down, only Microsoft can fix them. Increasingly, large
organizations of all kinds are opting for open source
solutions to their computer needs because open source
products are generally cheaper, more reliable and
easier to fix when they go wrong. The personal computer
market is not far behind.
of the biggest buyers are national or local government
bodies. In May this year the city authority of Munich
decided to convert its 14,000 computers to an open
source operating system (the most well-known, called
Linux). Microsoft worked hard to try and swing the
deal their way, but still got turned down. In Brazil,
the government is planning to use open source software
in up to 80% of its computers. In Spain and Australia,
municipal authorities have ruled that purchasing policies
must prioritize open source programs. In September
this year the governments of Japan, China and South
Korea agreed to start a joint open-source software
project for a wide range of applications.
The relentless whine of the "free" market
Not surprisingly with billions of dollars of business
at stake, resistance to regional, national and local
government moves in favour of open source software
is fierce. In classical neo-lib style, Microsoft and
its trade supporters have argued for deregulated markets.
Neo-lib propagandists churn out declarations like,
"Decisions about software purchase should be
left to the market, allowing all producers - open
source and proprietary - to compete for customers.
Products should be evaluated based on the value they
provide to the end users."1
the neolibs are unable to admit is that cities like
Munich and countries like China and Brazil are preparing
statutes after the fact. They weighed their options
and decided clearly against Microsoft. The sums are
simple. As the head of Brazil's Information Technology
Institute, Sergio Amadeu puts it, "If we do this
right, over 17 million people will have access to
computers. If every one of them had to pay 100 reales
for their desktop software then we'll be sending 1700
million reales (US$600 million) to pay for licenses.
Without free software it's impossible to have a significant
policy of digital inclusiveness."2
regulation is also necessary to prevent huge businesses
like Microsoft distorting the market by subsidising
products in the short term in order to clean up long
term once their less wealthy open source competitors
are forced out. In fact, leading free software proponents
view legislation with ambivalence. For example Richard
Stallman, founder and president of the Free Software
Foundation, "These laws are not the kind of help
we most ask for from governments...What we ask is
that they not interfere with us with things like the
Digital Millennium Copyright Act, with software patents,
with prohibitions on reverse engineering that enable
companies like Microsoft to make proprietary data
formats and prohibit our work. Those are the main
obstacles to satisfying the software needs of humanity."3
only government bodies looking to get the best deal
are choosing open source software. Early this year,
the Reuters Market Data System (RMDS) switched to
Linux under pressure from customers. A Reuters systems
manager said "The call for RMDS for Linux has
been astounding... They saw performance improvements
and cost savings. These folks are bankers, and they
know you almost never get more for less -- but this
time they did."4 Wall Street
monsters like Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Credit
Suisse First Boston and the Goldman Sachs Group have
all moved to open source software.
Free big deal?
So what is the great attraction of open source software?
Its low cost is one. But perhaps not the most important.
Reliability is another. The open source Apache program
for internet web servers leads the market precisely
because it combines low price with high reliability.
is also a major concern. The persistent problems with
computer viruses that beset Windows for many people
are just a foretaste of future problems. As one information
technology analyst put it recently, "Everyone
in the industry knows the world's chronic dependence
on Microsoft products is one day going to cause catastrophe,
yet many people who know about security are likely
to be reluctant to speak out."5
is closely tied to independence. Says Phil Hughes
publisher of Linux Journal, "Commercial proprietary
software companies have attempted to undermine Linux
acceptance by questioning the legality and practicality
of the General Public License. But once there has
been an open discussion of the terms and conditions
there has been little questioning of the license.
In addition, the advantage of open source code, of
knowing that one is not dependent on the software
vendor for support has tended to outweigh any doubts
about the validity of the licensing procedure."6
Backing up that analysis, big computer companies like
Hewlett Packard, Sun Microsystems and IBM have moved
to open source software. They too want low cost combined
with reliability, security and independence.
Phil Hughes' optimism about legal issues may be premature.
Microsoft and its trade supporters are more than ready
to defend their market share. As long ago as November
1998, Microsoft anxiety at the market success of open
source software became apparent when internal documents,
the so-called Halloween Documents, were made public.
Now Microsoft and other trade allies are supporting
lobby organizations like Initiative for Software Choice
(ISC), a project of the Computing Technology Industry
Association. Microsoft say, "Microsoft is a founding
member and maintains a strong commitment to the ISC.
This commitment is based on Microsoft's support of
the initiative's belief that it is important to allow
multiple software development, business and licensing
models to compete on their merits and without government
regulations that would seek to prefer one model over
familiar? It should. It's the same argument the US
and the EU deploy on agriculture on behalf of their
multinationals against developing countries. In that
particular "free trade" conflict, a massively
subsidised, genetically modified, machinery and chemical-warfare
wielding colossus enters the arena against a tiny
malnourished day labourer armed, if they are lucky,
with a mattock.
Intellectual property and the public good
In the case of software, with the two sides a little
more even, the unconvincing complaints of unfair trade
from giant, convicted anti-trust offender Microsoft
and its allies, are supplemented by efforts to create
market fear and uncertainty. But after losing the
historic anti-trust judgement back in April 2000,
Microsoft is more careful about how it deals with
competitors. As open source advocate Bruce Perens
puts it "I expect that Microsoft will try and
find other proxies to do their dirty work for them."8
March this year a proprietary software company called
SCO brought a billion dollar law suit against IBM
citing breach of confidentiality for disclosing alleged
trade secrets to the public. SCO and IBM had collaborated
on software development in the past. But when IBM
switched much of its program development to take advantage
of open source software, its work with SCO was largely
superseded. Essentially a financial dispute between
two very big companies, the law suit has little to
do directly with open source software businesses but
has caused insecurity among potential customers.
underlying issue is that of intellectual property
rights - patents and copyright - and how they affect
trade and economic development. Phil Hughes again,
"It's very easy to make a jump from the open,
free, cooperative, non-hierarchical base of Linux
commercial success to questions about the need for
or even the fundamental viability of intellectual
property rights as currently practised and understood.
This affects the general public good in a huge variety
of ways. For example, the public health implications
of patenting generic medicines, or closed source electoral
software susceptible to tampering or other corruption,
or food security in impoverished developing countries
- perhaps even the very possibility of sustainable
technological development in the developing world.
The basic issues seem to be ones of access to information
and capacity to innovate."
the United States and the rest of Europe were struggling
to catch up and overtake Great Britain as industrial
powers back in the nineteenth century, they depended
on copying technology. In those days it was impossible
to enforce patent and copyright. Now the major economic
powers, through their inherent financial might and
the World Trade Organization, their global all-in-one
sheriff, judge and jury, can intimidate weaker developing
countries so as to keep them in their neo-colonial
"free trade" advocates, there's the rub.
Anything that is patented or copyrighted can never
be freely traded. Neoliberal propagandists go very
quiet when their clarion calls for deregulation come
bang up against multinational patent rights. Richard
Stallman observes, "There is a partial similarity
between free software and globalization, but also
a major difference. The advocates of "free"
trade, and neoliberalism in general, argue that it
creates wealth. That is true--but it also concentrates
wealth. The result is that only the rich benefit.
The poor gain little; they may even lose, as has happened
in the US. Free software is different, because it
works against the concentration of wealth. (Copyright
is a major factor for concentration.) So when free
software creates more wealth, the benefits are general."9
The human factor - freedom and creativity
Free software enthusiasts really seem to be arguing
for a return to the practice of the 1950s and 1960s
when software was freely shared so as to promote rapid
development of computer applications. They say it
is essential to be able to freely run programs, study
how they work, adapt them, make copies to help other
people and release improvements to the public, so
everyone benefits. Access to program source code,
the kernel of any computer application, is a precondition
for these freedoms - something that is anathema to
proprietary software companies like Microsoft whose
fortunes are based on keeping people dependent on
paying for their software.
baffling factor for the neo-liberals is why anyone
would want to contribute their work for free. That
bafflement is understandable. Creative solidarity
led tens of thousands of software programmers around
the world to cooperate and create the Linux operating
system because the achievement and the benefits it
brought to so many other people were worthwhile in
their own right. That phenomenon is incomprehensible
to anyone looking for dollars on the bottom line.
Free software has little to do with a free lunch or
a free ride and everything to do with liberty and
creativity, freedom of thought, speech and expression.
The neo-liberal ideologues currently dominating international
economic policy will never understand that.
U.N. World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)
in December this year is probably the highest profile
event so far to address these issues. It is the first
of two world summits on communications and information
technology scheduled to take place in Geneva. It is
likely to be another forum for dispute between the
US and the EU.10 Despite the
fact that large US government departments, like the
Department of Defense, have opted for open source
software, the US government position is officially
neutral. A Commerce Department spokesman is quoted
as saying "Our view on open source is that the
U.S. and foreign governments need to be technology
neutral in its procurement and R&D investments."11
in Europe, on September 24th, the European Parliament
approved amendments to a European Commission directive
on information technology intellectual property rights
which effectively insists that in Europe software
should not be subject to patents. This vote could
affect over 20,000 software patents accepted by the
European patent office. Whether the democratic will
of people in Europe expressed through their parliament
survives industry lobbying of government ministers
in the Council of Europe remains to be seen.
Patented poverty - recipe for under-development
A year ago the independent UK funded Commission on
Intellectual Property Rights reported on the impact
of intellectual property rights on developing countries.
Chaired by Professor John Barton of Stanford University,
the report confirmed that poor countries suffer badly
as a result of patents and copyrights affecting health,
agriculture, education and information technology.
True to the style of these commissions, Professor
Barton heavily understated the case, "The temptation
to impose very strict protection because of the ease
with which software and other digital media can be
copied may diminish the very real benefits they could
bring to developing countries, particularly in accessing
educational and scientific documents at low cost."12
kind of pronouncement by comfortable career academics
(who would never be asked to chair such commissions
were their conclusions likely to be contoversial)
belies reality. The neo-liberal bureaucrats driving
international development policy have a destructive
and impoverished vision derived from centuries of
colonialism and patriarchy. Human creativity and natural
diversity have little place in their reduced, profit
obsessed world. For them it is all the same whether
they promote patents for basmati rice or for some
obscure software patch.
from oppressed sectors of the developing world speak
more directly than Professor Barton. As Indian writer
Vandana Shiva says, "Basmati, neem, pepper, bitter
gourd, turmeric . . . every aspect of the innovation
embodied in our indigenous food and medicinal systems
is now being pirated and patented. The knowledge of
the poor is being converted into the property of global
corporations, creating a situation where the poor
will have to pay for the seeds and medicines they
have evolved and have used to meet their needs for
nutrition and health care."13
Wholesale enforcement of intellectual property rights
brings misery and untimely death to many millions
of people the world over.
conservative US writer Robert Frost once wrote "Good
fences make good neighbours". In the case of
software, as in everything else, global multinationals
have trampled at will over every neighbour in sight,
from Brazil to Korea. Now those countries are struggling
to set things right as best they can. One thing they
are able to do is adopt free software like Linux.
But the powerful proprietary software lobby is determined
to stop them. We can be better neighbours by defending
open source software and adopting Linux ourselves.
Remember that T-shirt.
(Toni Solo is an activist based in Central America.
'New Protectionism: Mandates for Open Source Software',
Citizens for a Sound Economy August 27, 2003
"El otro pingüino - Avance del software
libre en la administración argentina"
Andrea Ferrari, Página 12, September 29th
'Governments push open-source software', August
29, 2001, by Paul Festa, CNET News.com
"Banks Want to Swim With Penguin",
Wired News, February 3rd 2003
John Naughton, Observer (UK Sunday newspaper).
Sunday October 5th.
Interviewed for this article
"The politics of open-source software",
by Declan McCullagh, July 14 2003, CNET News.com
'Open source confronts IP issues - Building on grass-roots
heritage, open source facing commercial IP practices'
by Robert McMillan, Ed Scannell. InfoWorld
August 15, 2003
Quoted in "Is Free Software Inevitable?"
Linas Vepstas , February-July 2001
The activist group Geneva-03 is asking all interested
people to get involved with their initiative around
the WSIS event. www.geneva03.org
'Open source' software trend faces barriers', by
William New, National Journal's Technology Daily,
August 25, 2003, www.govexec.com
'Intellectual property rights "harm poor"
', by Alex Kirby, 12 September 2002, BBC Online
'GLOBALIZATION AND POVERTY - Economic globalization
has become a war against nature and the poor.' by
Vandana Shiva, from the review Resurgence
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