Open Source Software and Intellectual Property Issues

Open Source Software and Intellectual Property Issues

Open source software has proliferated in the last few years, and it’s not difficult to see why it’s so popular. The ability to get a quality product for free has revolutionised many people’s use of information technology. Rather than the world of IT being characterised by a power struggle between large corporations, open source makes it far more democratic. Access to IT is a huge issue as the importance of technology in our lives increases, and that makes open source ever more important.

Open source v piracy

Open source, by its nature, delivers a challenge to the business model of the big corporations. For many years, companies like Microsoft have worked to try and challenge piracy of their products. However, this is not a clear-cut issue. Unlike, say, checking the results of asbestos surveys, there is no right or wrong. Those who use pirate software have often been able to put an effective counter argument that they would not be able to use their products at all if they had to pay full price for them. In developing countries in particular, difficulties with access to the digital world is a big issue. In many places, piracy has been accepted as standard, as the cost of software is simply far too high for people there to bear. Open source has provided people in the developing world with an opportunity to take part in the digital age without using pirated products. Not only does that mean that they are not doing anything illegal, it means that they’re able to access a stable product that meets their needs without risk.

Opposition to open source

Anything that challenges received ideas about the way the world should be, and that unsettles powerful people and corporations, is inherently controversial. Open source has proved to be so. In the US, a strong lobby has consistently argued that open source software is a challenge to intellectual property rights. The International Intellectual Property Alliance in particular has tried to get the US government to put those countries which use open source software on their ‘watch list’ of countries which are seen as damaging US interests. Their argument is that the software industry is weakened by open source. Whether you buy that or not, rather depends on what you believe the ‘software industry’ to be.

The software industry is not Microsoft. Open source is part of the software industry too, it just has a different role within it. So when people say that they believe open source to be damaging to the software industry, perhaps what they really mean is that they believe it to be damaging to a specific vision of what the software industry should be. This view really fails to value what is best about the software industry: its ability to change, develop and innovate in order to meet people’s needs. Software at its best is a exciting and cutting edge, it is not about meeting tired expectations or keeping big business shareholders happy.

Changing times

Digital exclusion is one of the biggest issues facing us in a globalised world. In order to participate in the world, people need to be able to access quality, up-to-date software. Open source goes a long way to helping them do that. It also delivers a challenge to the big players and traditional models, just as the music industry has been challenged by the availability of digital music. Ideas about copyright and intellectual property that were right for a pre-digital age, simply don’t work for us now. Rather than fighting this, the big corporations would do well to recognise that they need to adjust.

Slowly, they are. In the music industry, digital has led to a welcome revival of live music, and has actually helped many new and smaller artists gain a foothold. It seems that open source software is gaining similar acceptance. NASA are even getting in on the act, launching an open source portal. However, the influence of big corporations and the intellectual property lobby is still formidable. It has emerged that in the UK, Microsoft have been able to successfully challenge the government’s policy of open standards for its software. It does seem likely though that sheer force of numbers and desire of people to be able to use software will continue to mean that open source is unstoppable.

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