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Fri, 22 Aug 2003 11:47:48 +0100
A few misconceptions in the article, but
an interesting report...
The Quiet War Over Open-Source
By Jonathan Krim
Thursday, August 21, 2003
Every day now, it seems, we do battle with technology. If it isn't spam,
it's worms. If it isn't the worms, it's viruses, or hacking, or identity
theft. Sometimes, it's the gadgets and software we buy that are still
too hard to use.
But as technology in general, and the Internet in particular, drives
deeper into the fabric of daily life, battles also rage behind the
scenes. They are struggles for control over how the Internet should
work, over who sets the rules for its pipes and gateways and who owns
the material that moves through them. These are the wars fought with
armies of corporate lobbyists, technologists and citizen activists but
largely ignored by the general public. And none is larger, or carries
higher financial stakes, than the issue with the eye-glazing name of
Consumers are getting a taste of this right now, as the major record
companies sue hundreds of people for stealing their works by using
file-sharing programs. On another front, "open-source" software, which
relies on collaboration and sharing of computer code rather than
traditional for-profit development and distribution of programs, is
capturing the attention of cash-strapped governments and businesses as a
less-expensive alternative to commercial products.
Open-source software has been embraced by some companies that are
building businesses around it. But it is the bane of others, including
the industry's most powerful player, Microsoft Corp. The world's largest
software maker is lobbying furiously in state, national and
international capitals against laws that would promote the consideration
or use of open-source software. So alarmed agents of Microsoft sprang
into high gear in June after a surprising quote appeared in Nature
magazine from an official of the World Intellectual Property
Organization (WIPO). The official said that the Switzerland-based group
of about 180 nations, which promotes intellectual-property rights and
standards around the globe, was intrigued by the growth of the
open-source movement and welcomed the idea of a meeting devoted to
open-source's place in the intellectual-property landscape.
The proposal for the meeting had come in a letter from nearly 60
technologists, economists and academics from around the world, and was
organized by James Love, who runs the Ralph Nader-affiliated Consumer
Project on Technology.
Love and others argue that in some areas, such as pharmaceuticals or
software that powers critical infrastructure or educational tools,
developing nations in particular would benefit from less restrictive or
alternative copyright, patent or trademark systems.
In short order, lobbyists from Microsoft-funded trade groups were
pushing officials at the State Department and the U.S. Patent and
Trademark Office to squelch the meeting. One lobbyist, Emery Simon with
the Business Software Alliance, said his group objected to the
suggestion in the proposal that overly broad or restrictive
intellectual-property rights might in some cases stunt technological
innovation and economic growth.
Simon insists that his group does not oppose open-source software, or
discussion of the issue, but fights to defend the notion that a strong
system of proprietary rights offers the best avenue for the development
of groundbreaking software by giving its inventors economic incentive to
And he said that the BSA's governing board, composed of several
companies in addition to Microsoft, unanimously opposed the letter and
The U.S. government, which wields considerable clout in WIPO, might not
have needed prodding from Microsoft to demand that the idea of an
open-source meeting be quashed.
Lois Boland, director of international relations for the U.S. Patent and
Trademark Office, said that open-source software runs counter to the
mission of WIPO, which is to promote intellectual-property rights.
"To hold a meeting which has as its purpose to disclaim or waive such
rights seems to us to be contrary to the goals of WIPO," she said.
She added that the WIPO official who embraced the meeting had done so
without proper consultation with the member states, and that WIPO's
budget already is strained and cannot accommodate another meeting next
Boland said that if groups such as Love's want an international forum
for discussion of open-source, they need to find another organization to
The WIPO official, Francis Gurry, did not return numerous calls for
comment, but the organization has said it no longer has plans for an
The meeting dust-up is further inflaming an argument that has the fervor
of religious debate.
Open-source proponents note that its software is here to stay, gaining
adoption within the federal government and elsewhere. And they argue
that many open-source models rely on property rights through licenses,
but apply them in less traditional ways.
More broadly, though, they envision a world in which the Internet is the
connective tissue that creates a public commons, a place where art and
technology should be shared as well as bought and sold. Why, they ask,
should that not be debated with vigor?
But open-source is not just a political challenge. It strikes a starkly
different, and sometimes opposite, pose from that of traditional
And that prospect quickly draws the lobbyists, even if the public isn't
Jonathan Krim's e-mail address is address@hidden
Production Editor, LinuxUser & Developer
T: +44 (0)1625 855084, F: +44 (0)1625 855071
The GNU/Linux magazine for IT decision makers
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