Good ideas are worth money. So why are hard headed operators giving them away for free? Join our experiment to find out says Graham Lawton
If you’ve been to a computer show in recent months you might have seen it: a shiny silver drinks can with a ring-pull logo and the words “opencola” on the side. Inside is a fizzy drink that tastes very much like Coca-Cola. Or is it Pepsi?
There’s something else written on the can, though, which sets the drink apart. It says “check out the source at opencola.com”. Go to that Web address and you’ll see something that’s not available on Coca-Cola’s website, or Pepsi’s–the recipe for cola. For the first time ever, you can make the real thing in your own home.
OpenCola is the world’s first “open source” consumer product. By calling it open source, its manufacturer is saying that instructions for making it are freely available. Anybody can make the drink, and anyone can modify and improve on the recipe as long as they, too, release their recipe into the public domain. As a way of doing business it’s rather unusual–the Coca-Cola Company doesn’t make a habit of giving away precious commercial secrets. But that’s the point.
OpenCola is the most prominent sign yet that a long-running battle between rival philosophies in software development has spilt over into the rest of the world. What started as a technical debate over the best way to debug computer programs is developing into a political battle over the ownership of knowledge and how it is used, between those who put their faith in the free circulation of ideas and those who prefer to designate them “intellectual property”. No one knows what the outcome will be. But in a world of growing opposition to corporate power, restrictive intellectual property rights and globalisation, open source is emerging as a possible alternative, a potentially potent means of fighting back. And you’re helping to test its value right now.
The open source movement originated in 1984 when computer scientist Richard Stallman quit his job at MIT and set up the Free Software Foundation. His aim was to create high-quality software that was freely available to everybody. Stallman’s beef was with commercial companies that smother their software with patents and copyrights and keep the source code–the original program, written in a computer language such as C++–a closely guarded secret. Stallman saw this as damaging. It generated poor-quality, bug-ridden software. And worse, it choked off the free flow of ideas. Stallman fretted that if computer scientists could no longer learn from one another’s code, the art of programming would stagnate (New Scientist, 12 December 1998, p 42).
Stallman’s move resonated round the computer science community and now there are thousands of similar projects. The star of the movement is Linux, an operating system created by Finnish student Linus Torvalds in the early 1990s and installed on around 18 million computers worldwide.
What sets open source software apart from commercial software is the fact that it’s free, in both the political and the economic sense. If you want to use a commercial product such as Windows XP or Mac OS X you have to pay a fee and agree to abide by a licence that stops you from modifying or sharing the software. But if you want to run Linux or another open source package, you can do so without paying a penny–although several companies will sell you the software bundled with support services. You can also modify the software in any way you choose, copy it and share it without restrictions. This freedom acts as an open invitation–some say challenge–to its users to make improvements. As a result, thousands of volunteers are constantly working on Linux, adding new features and winkling out bugs. Their contributions are reviewed by a panel and the best ones are added to Linux. For programmers, the kudos of a successful contribution is its own reward. The result is a stable, powerful system that adapts rapidly to technological change. Linux is so successful that even IBM installs it on the computers it sells.
To maintain this benign state of affairs, open source software is covered by a special legal instrument called the General Public License. Instead of restricting how the software can be used, as a standard software license does, the GPL–often known as a “copyleft”–grants as much freedom as possible (see http://www.fsf.org/licenses/gpl.html). Software released under the GPL (or a similar copyleft licence) can be copied, modified and distributed by anyone, as long as they, too, release it under a copyleft. That restriction is crucial, because it prevents the material from being co-opted into later proprietary products. It also makes open source software different from programs that are merely distributed free of charge. In FSF’s words, the GPL “makes it free and guarantees it remains free”.
Open source has proved a very successful way of writing software. But it has also come to embody a political stand–one that values freedom of expression, mistrusts corporate power, and is uncomfortable with private ownership of knowledge. It’s “a broadly libertarian view of the proper relationship between individuals and institutions”, according to open source guru Eric Raymond.
But it’s not just software companies that lock knowledge away and release it only to those prepared to pay. Every time you buy a CD, a book, a copy of New Scientist, even a can of Coca-Cola, you’re forking out for access to someone else’s intellectual property. Your money buys you the right to listen to, read or consume the contents, but not to rework them, or make copies and redistribute them. No surprise, then, that people within the open source movement have asked whether their methods would work on other products. As yet no one’s sure–but plenty of people are trying it.
Take OpenCola. Although originally intended as a promotional tool to explain open source software, the drink has taken on a life of its own. The Toronto-based OpenCola company has become better known for the drink than the software it was supposed to promote. Laird Brown, the company’s senior strategist, attributes its success to a widespread mistrust of big corporations and the “proprietary nature of almost everything”. A website selling the stuff has shifted 150,000 cans. Politically minded students in the US have started mixing up the recipe for parties.
OpenCola is a happy accident and poses no real threat to Coke or Pepsi, but elsewhere people are deliberately using the open source model to challenge entrenched interests. One popular target is the music industry. At the forefront of the attack is the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco group set up to defend civil liberties in the digital society. In April of last year, the EFF published a model copyleft called the Open Audio License (OAL). The idea is to let musicians take advantage of digital music’s properties–ease of copying and distribution–rather than fighting against them. Musicians who release music under an OAL consent to their work being freely copied, performed, reworked and reissued, as long as these new products are released under the same licence. They can then rely on “viral distribution” to get heard. “If the people like the music, they will support the artist to ensure the artist can continue to make music,” says Robin Gross of the EFF.
It’s a little early to judge whether the OAL will capture imaginations in the same way as OpenCola. But it’s already clear that some of the strengths of open source software simply don’t apply to music. In computing, the open source method lets users improve software by eliminating errors and inefficient bits of code, but it’s not obvious how that might happen with music. In fact, the music is not really “open source” at all. The files posted on the OAL music website http://www.openmusicregistry.org so far are all MP3s and Ogg Vorbises–formats which allow you to listen but not to modify.
It’s also not clear why any mainstream artists would ever choose to release music under an OAL. Many bands objected to the way Napster members circulated their music behind their backs, so why would they now allow unrestricted distribution, or consent to strangers fiddling round with their music? Sure enough, you’re unlikely to have heard of any of the 20 bands that have posted music on the registry. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Open Audio amounts to little more than an opportunity for obscure artists to put themselves in the shop window.
The problems with open music, however, haven’t put people off trying open source methods elsewhere. Encyclopedias, for example, look like fertile ground. Like software, they’re collaborative and modular, need regular upgrading, and improve with peer review. But the first attempt, a free online reference called Nupedia, hasn’t exactly taken off. Two years on, only 25 of its target 60,000 articles have been completed. “At the current rate it will never be a large encyclopedia,” says editor-in-chief Larry Sanger. The main problem is that the experts Sanger wants to recruit to write articles have little incentive to participate. They don’t score academic brownie points in the same way software engineers do for upgrading Linux, and Nupedia can’t pay them.
It’s a problem that’s inherent to most open source products: how do you get people to chip in? Sanger says he’s exploring ways to make money out of Nupedia while preserving the freedom of its content. Banner adverts are a possibility. But his best hope is that academics start citing Nupedia articles so authors can earn academic credit.
There’s another possibility: trust the collective goodwill of the open source community. A year ago, frustrated by the treacle-like progress of Nupedia, Sanger started another encyclopedia named Wikipedia (the name is taken from open source Web software called WikiWiki that allows pages to be edited by anyone on the Web). It’s a lot less formal than Nupedia: anyone can write or edit an article on any topic, which probably explains the entries on beer and Star Trek. But it also explains its success. Wikipedia already contains 19,000 articles and is acquiring several thousand more each month. “People like the idea that knowledge can and should be freely distributed and developed,” says Sanger. Over time, he reckons, thousands of dabblers should gradually fix any errors and fill in any gaps in the articles until Wikipedia evolves into an authoritative encyclopedia with hundreds of thousands of entries.
Another experiment that’s proved its worth is the OpenLaw project at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. Berkman lawyers specialise in cyberlaw–hacking, copyright, encryption and so on–and the centre has strong ties with the EFF and the open source software community. In 1998 faculty member Lawrence Lessig, now at Stanford Law School, was asked by online publisher Eldritch Press to mount a legal challenge to US copyright law. Eldritch takes books whose copyright has expired and publishes them on the Web, but new legislation to extend copyright from 50 to 70 years after the author’s death was cutting off its supply of new material. Lessig invited law students at Harvard and elsewhere to help craft legal arguments challenging the new law on an online forum, which evolved into OpenLaw.
Normal law firms write arguments the way commercial software companies write code. Lawyers discuss a case behind closed doors, and although their final product is released in court, the discussions or “source code” that produced it remain secret. In contrast, OpenLaw crafts its arguments in public and releases them under a copyleft. “We deliberately used free software as a model,” says Wendy Selzer, who took over OpenLaw when Lessig moved to Stanford. Around 50 legal scholars now work on Eldritch’s case, and OpenLaw has taken other cases, too.
“The gains are much the same as for software,” Selzer says. “Hundreds of people scrutinise the ‘code’ for bugs, and make suggestions how to fix it. And people will take underdeveloped parts of the argument, work on them, then patch them in.” Armed with arguments crafted in this way, OpenLaw has taken Eldritch’s case–deemed unwinnable at the outset–right through the system and is now seeking a hearing in the Supreme Court.
There are drawbacks, though. The arguments are in the public domain right from the start, so OpenLaw can’t spring a surprise in court. For the same reason, it can’t take on cases where confidentiality is important. But where there’s a strong public interest element, open sourcing has big advantages. Citizens’ rights groups, for example, have taken parts of OpenLaw’s legal arguments and used them elsewhere. “People use them on letters to Congress, or put them on flyers,” Selzer says.
The open content movement is still at an early stage and it’s hard to predict how far it will spread. “I’m not sure there are other areas where open source would work,” says Sanger. “If there were, we might have started it ourselves.” Eric Raymond has also expressed doubts. In his much-quoted 1997 essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, he warned against applying open source methods to other products. “Music and most books are not like software, because they don’t generally need to be debugged or maintained,” he wrote. Without that need, the products gain little from others’ scrutiny and reworking, so there’s little benefit in open sourcing. “I do not want to weaken the winning argument for open sourcing software by tying it to a potential loser,” he wrote.
But Raymond’s views have now shifted subtly. “I’m more willing to admit that I might talk about areas other than software someday,” he told New Scientist. “But not now.” The right time will be once open source software has won the battle of ideas, he says. He expects that to happen around 2005.
And so the experiment goes on. As a contribution to it, New Scientist has agreed to issue this article under a copyleft. That means you can copy it, redistribute it, reprint it in whole or in part, and generally play around with it as long as you, too, release your version under a copyleft and abide by the other terms and conditions in the licence. We also ask that you inform us of any use you make of the article, by e-mailing email@example.com.
One reason for doing so is that by releasing it under a copyleft, we can print the recipe for OpenCola without violating its copyleft. If nothing else, that demonstrates the power of the copyleft to spread itself. But there’s another reason, too: to see what happens. To my knowledge this is the first magazine article published under a copyleft. Who knows what the outcome will be? Perhaps the article will disappear without a trace. Perhaps it will be photocopied, redistributed, re-edited, rewritten, cut and pasted onto websites, handbills and articles all over the world. I don’t know–but that’s the point. It’s not up to me any more. The decision belongs to all of us.
For a selection of copylefts, see http://www.eff.org/IP/Open_licenses/open_alternatives.html
The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Raymond is available at http://tuxedo.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/
News Service: New Scientist