Free and Open Source Software (FOSS)

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Open Software

Closed Versus Free and Open Software

The new 'Information Society' is being developed around the provision of information services. The control of those services has significant implications for social justice - whether people will be included or excluded from the new networked society. But perhaps the most significant impacts may not be related to the access to the information services themselves - but rather the systems that enable access to take place.

Today most computer systems function using 'proprietary' software. This has implications for how people are able to use them, the technological standards that are used, and the quality of the systems themselves. These issues have been highlighted by the recent anti-trust case against Microsoft in the USA, and the debate over the dominance of one computer operating system. But the problems in the future will be far more than the dominance of one or two operating systems. As the protocols and standards that enable movement of information become proprietary - be it a word processor file or the encoding of video information before transmission - the control of the flow of information will be centralised amongst those corporations who own these standards.

Computer software patenting threatens the development of alternative, compatible computer systems

Some of the issues relating to the monopoly control over information systems has been highlighted by the debate around software patents. Previously computer software has been copyrighted. This protected the intellectual property contained in the computer program, in the same way that a book, video or audio recording is protected. But this protection is not exclusive. Copyright still allows the development of other computer programs that may emulate the functions of other systems, provided those programs do not directly copy sections of the original programs they are based upon. The patenting of computer software makes the development of new computer systems exclusive, so handing monopoly control to the patents owner.

Patents recognise the 'innovation' of technology, not the production of a particular product. If the patent covers a general computer program then the patent may not be significant. But where the patent covers the implementation of standards central to the use of computer systems, the patent prevents the development of new programs that seek to provide an alternative, but compatible system. A good example of this has been the CSS standard that is used to encode digital video discs (DVDs). Those who have sought to produce programs that can read DVD discs have been sued by the developers of CSS bcause it is an infringement of their intellectual property. Another similar example is the 'ebook' standard that allows the publication of books electronically. Those who have been involved with the development of programs that are able to read this standard have been arrested and detained when travelling to the USA. This is because the development of programs to read these new standards is now a criminal offence, rather than a civil offence, under the new US Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The rise of the open software movements: developing software for a social purpose

The increasing power of software corporations, such as Microsoft, has led to a backlash from the computer community. The movement against restrictive intellectual property rights over computer software began in the 1980s. It was primarily centred around the leading technology institutes. But the growth of the movement was also enabled by the increasing use of personal computers in the home. The development of the home PC first highlighted the restrictions of software licensing imposed, and challenged the notion that all information must be 'paid for'. Many people just copied software or data because they did not consider licensing to be valid, or they saw it as a form of official larceny. The rise of the PC also enabled alternative models of intellectual property rights to be developed, outside the mainstream software industry. These new models allow socially motivated programmers, driven by perceived social needs rather than the protection of self-interest, to work collectively to develop their own solutions.

Today, the reaction is not just against costs or licensing restrictions. It also emphasises the impacts of corporate controls over systems, and what this means for the freedom and creativity of the computer user. There are two similar, but subtly different alternatives to proprietary control - 'free software' and 'open source'.

Free Software and Copyleft

The leading proponent of free software is Richard Stallman - initiator of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation. After a successful early career in the computer industry he began to formulate an alternative model for how the computer industry, and software development, could work. He described this new model as copyleft - the antithesis to the copyright framework that dominated the computer industry at that time. In turn the copyleft model, codified as the GNU Public Licence (GPL), has inspired others to evolve their own open licences and enabled the development of a whole new area of the computer industry, centred around the Linux (often called GNU/Linux) operating system.

The "Un-American" Open Source Movement

The open source movement (a generic name for this new group, which actually encompasses a number of different models that specify the extent of intellectual property controls that should be allowed) that Stallman inspired does not advocate abolishing the notion of intellectual property. Instead, they propose that the source or ownership of information is acknowledged under various public licences and that all rights should vested with that person. But for the majority of cases, access to or use of that information should not incur a charge, nor any restriction on modification or adaptation, providing that the original contribution of the work's creator is acknowledged. This means that if the information is ever put to a commercial use, an agreement must be made with the owner of the work to govern how the work will be licensed for that use. In any case, the stipulation that any information or products that incorporate open source information must themselves be open source ensures the open nature of the work ad infinitum. In the US some have recently described the anti-commercial nature of open source as 'un-American, and Steve Ballmer of Microsoft has described open source software as a 'cancer'.

The most significant development under this new model of software licensing has been the Linux operating system. Often it is called GNU/Linux, to recognise the contribution of both its main developer, Linus Torvalds, and also the role of Stallman's GNU Project for providing the framework for its development. A large part of the development of Linux and Linux-based programs has not been carried out by software corporations or organisations. Instead individual software developers or enthusiasts collaborate across the Internet to develop and improve computer programs. This has had a great impact on not only the functionality and diversity if programs available for Linux. But it has also seen the development of a whole philosophy based around the maintenance systems by communities of developers for a social purpose, in contrast to the development of proprietary systems to serve the business objectives of software corporations.

The Linux operating system is based upon Unix, the network system that runs many of the large computer systems in industry, and which until recently ran much of the Internet. Today Linux has begun to replace Unix as the main operating system of the Internet. But there has also been an increase in the number of desktop application for Linux, such as office-related software, that can directly replace Microsoft's Windows operating system. This means that today the open source movement, supported by the GNU/Linux operating system and communities of open source programmers, are able to challenge the power of proprietary software.

If proprietary standards become dominant, corporations not only extract money as a result of this monopoly, but they can also control how society is able to communicate

The debate over justice the new Information Society has traditionally focussed on is the issue of the so-called 'digital divide' - the 'information rich' and the 'information poor'. However, the control over the programs or protocols that enable the movement of information has a far more insidious impact. By ensuring that proprietary standards become dominant, corporations have effective control over the flow of information across society. They cannot only extract money as a result of this monopoly. But they can also, through deciding what actions a system should or should not permit, control how society is able to work or communicate.

The pre-requisite of the technological control of the new Information Society is that computer software be patent-able. The protection given by copyright does not create a total monopoly. Therefore the software industry has been lobbying for a long time to secure changes in the law to enable software patents. In the USA, this has now come to pass in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. However, in Europe, there has still been no final decision on giving patent protection to software. Therefore, in Europe at least, there is still the opportunity to defeat efforts by the computer industry to extend their domination over the way society is able to use computer systems.


APC's Training Materials section has links to many reference resources on Open Source software