Open Source and the Obligation to Recycle

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Tim O'Reilly
Dec. 16, 2001 11:07 AM

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Three years ago, Simson Garfinkel wrote an article for the Boston Globe called Copyrights and Wrongs about his frustration that Lotus Improv, a revolutionary spreadsheet developed for the NeXT, was no longer sold or supported by Lotus, even though it had been ported to Windows in 1993. Simson wrote that, faced with a complex spreadsheet problem that he couldn't handle easily in Excel or 1-2-3 but that he remembered being able to do easily in the brief heyday of the NeXT,
I started hunting on the Internet. My Holy Grail was a 1993 copy of Lotus Improv 2.0 for Windows 3.1. After a lot of searching I found somebody who had an old copy, and I bought it for $75. I'm pleased to report that the program runs like a champ under Windows '98.

Unfortunately, that's the end of the story. I'm legally prohibited from making copies of Improv for my friends and coworkers. Improv is protected by copyright, and even though Lotus no longer sells or supports the product, that protection still holds. This is a kind of crime against society.

The purpose of copyrights is to give authors protection for their intellectual works, so that they will be motivated to produce new ones. It is a bargain between society and the inventor. If a company reneges on its side of the bargain - and in the case of Improv, Lotus surely has - the works protected by copyright should become public property. That is, I think that they should go into the public domain.

The implications of this argument go far beyond Improv. Dozens of software publishers have gone out of business and taken their wares with them. Just imagine what the world would be like if instead of killing their products, these companies had been forced to release them into the public domain. Today there would be more than a dozen free word processors and spreadsheets available for Windows, giving Microsoft a real run for its money. And if the companies had been compelled to release the source code for these products as well, then enterprising hobbyists would have ported these applications to the Linux operating system.

Simson's comments resonated with my own experience, and not just in the software field. I have often lamented restaurants that went out of business leaving me pining for a dish whose recipe I wish they had passed on as a parting gift. I still have my empty bottle of Neoxyn, the only remedy for poison oak rashes that I ever found to work, but which was withdrawn by the manufacturer in the early 1980s "due to lack of market acceptance." My letter to the company asking for the formula went unanswered.

This concept of open source as a kind of recycling became a key component of my February 2000 letter to Jeff Bezos about Amazon's 1-click patent:

There are more than a few similarities between sustainable farming (versus resource exploitation) and technological innovation that are worth meditating upon. You may gain short-term advantage by taking as much as you can from the soil without regard to building it up again, but eventually, your soil quality will decline, and you'll find yourselves having to spend more and more on added fertilizer.
I was prompted to go googling for Simson's original article after O'Reilly editor Paula Ferguson asked me to write something announcing the release of our Motif Programming Manual and Motif Reference Manual as part of O'Reilly's Open Books Project.

A number of the books that we've released under open publication licenses were originally developed with an open source license in mind. For example, when we published Using Samba, it was an explicit goal of the Samba team to have an open source book to go with the project. The authors of many of our Linux books, as well as Andy Oram, our principal Linux editor, have shared that goal, and so books like the The Linux Network Administrator's Guide, Writing Linux Device Drivers, and Learning Debian GNU/Linux are also under an open publication license, even though our experience tells us that we derive somewhat less revenue from publishing under such a license.

In fact, we made the same choice with our book about Docbook, one of several open source projects that was actually started at O'Reilly. Spreading the software and making it more accessible was more important to the authors and to us than maximizing revenue. We had a similar motivation for putting Open Sources under an open publication license. We wanted its ideas to be spread as widely as possible.

But if you look at the complete Open Books list, you'll also see a number of out of print books. These books were open sourced not because we wanted to spread the software or the ideas, but because we felt an obligation to make the material available to those who could make use of it even after we were no longer able to sell the books profitably ourselves. This is recycling in action.

The Motif books were originally published in the late 80's, and went through several very profitable editions. In early 2000, we published a new edition of the Motif Reference Manual, to cover Motif 2.1, but it sold very poorly. Antony Fountain, the author of the revised edition, had also updated The Motif Programming Manual, but we decided not to publish it because sales of the reference manual convinced us we would lose money on it. But we didn't want the work to go to waste, and now that we've opened up the source for the old edition, Antony's company will be able to make a new edition available.

I'd like to urge every company whose products are "obsolete" to consider making them available under an open source license, or putting them in the public domain. While many of these contributions may go unnoticed and unused, they will enrich the soil of our collective commons.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.