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Government, for and against, at OScon

by Andy Oram
Jul. 25, 2002
URL: http://conferences.oreillynet.com/os2002/

We are constantly reminded how little intellectual or cultural capital we'd have without a public domain or commons. We wouldn't have the technology that is currently most exciting to computer users, for instance: Mac OS X. Its history (partly retold by Jason Evans today at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in his talk on Porting Open Source Applications to Mac OS X) is nothing but a string of projects whose intellectual property was taken over wholesale by other projects; the whole operating system is as mongrelized as Yiddish or Spanglish. The Mach team at Carnegie-Mellon adopted BSD as their interface. NextSTEP adopted Mach and BSD. When NextSTEP was taken over by Apple, it went back once again to newer versions of Mach and BSD to create Darwin. The system's toolchain, like the one on Linux, consists almost entirely of GNU utilities such as gcc. I could go on and on.

Nowadays, the use of Open Source software is firmly on government agendas in several continents. Incentives are financial, functional, and strategic. Representatives of Germany and Peru joined several U.S. experts in and outside of government in the panel Open Source in Government Panel,

Here we learned that Open Source is widely used throughout the federal government, including by the military in mission-critical projects (where they really mean "mission-critical"). But the atmosphere created by high-level officials, as well as by Microsoft's pressure, can be characterized as "Don't ask, don't tell." Therefore, nobody can tell how widespread it is.

Dr. Edgar David Villanueva Núñez, a congressman in Peru who has introduced a bill mandating the use of Open Source software by government, raised the financial issue. He pointed out that people in Peru go to jail for illegally installing proprietary software--while the prosecutors and judges who jail them are also illegally using proprietary software.

Functional considerations are the same ones driving the adoption of Open Source in industry. One of the great advantages here of Open Source software is its interoperability. "The ability to collaborate is critical," said Mary Ann Fisher of IBM, especially between government and universities.

Strategic issues include knowing how the software works and giving the public confidence in government functions.

As Open Source enters the mainstream, in the session Legal Issues for Open Source Projects Lawrence Rosen showed how young and unformed the legal regime for Open Source is. The GPL is quite sophisticated, but Rosen took exception with clauses even in that. Many other licenses seem embarrassingly insufficient from a lawyer's point of view. Ironically, UCITA (which would let commercial software developers wantonly abandon their responsibilities to consumers) would place burdens on free software that its developers could not afford by requiring implied warranties of merchantability and fitness. (According to Rosen, Maryland put an exemption for free software into its version of UCITA.)

When Richard Stallman, a conference keynoter whose speech I summarized in yesterday's weblog, chose as his life's mission to make software free, many of us saw it as rather quixotic and obsessive even if they sympathized with the cause. And even if we recognized that the future would be based on the miniaturized and the digital, we did not grasp how totally software would become the metaphor and then the model for all things intellectual and cultural. The more change is framed in terms of intellectual property, the more RMS's place in history is assured.

Copyrights are by no means the only battleground, or even the most important one. Thus, the greatest health battle of the past two hundred years, AIDS, and the success of drug companies in producing treatments, becomes framed in social terms as a patent issue. So do controversies over new crops. In the two keynotes this morning, by biologists Ewan Birney and Jim Kent, questions of intellectual property were posed over and over. For instance, the issue came up several times of the difficulties in opening up research results, as well as software developed during these projects, because of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980.

So there's a lot of work left to do to put Open Source on a firm footing: legal work to produce licenses good for the long term, educational work work to promote its use in and outside government, and political work to combat the laws and policies that could crush it.

Andy Oram is an editor for O'Reilly Media, specializing in Linux and free software books, and a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. His web site is www.praxagora.com/andyo.

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