Open Source used to be the default way of doing things

The “Open Source” way is closer to how human creativity has always worked.

This is an excerpt from “Culture as Open Source / Open Source as Culture” by Siva Vaidhyanathan (2005), released under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The “Open Source” way of doing things is all the rage. Companies as powerful and established as IBM boast of using LINUX operating systems in servers. Publications as conservative as The Economist have pronounced Open Source methods “successful” and have pondered their applicability to areas of research and development as different from software as pharmaceutical research.

It is striking that we have to employ phrases like “Open Source” and “Free Software” at all.

They are significant, powerful phrases simply because they represent an insurgent model of commercial activity and information policy. They challenge the entrenched status quo: the proprietary model of cultural and technological production.

But this has only recently been the case. The “Open Source” way is closer to how human creativity has always worked. Open Source used to be the default way of doing things. The rapid adoption of proprietary information has been so intense and influential since the 1980s that we hardly remember another way or another time. However, through most of human history all information technologies and almost all technologies were “open source.” And we have done pretty well as a species with tools and habits unencumbered by high restrictions on sharing, copying, customizing, and improving.

We have become so inured by the proprietary model, so dazzled and intimidated by its cultural and political power, that any common sense challenge to its assumptions and tenets seems radical, idealistic, or dangerous. But in recent years the practical advantages of the “Open Source” model of creativity and commerce have become clear. The resulting clamor about the advantages and threats of Open Source models have revealed serious faults in the chief regulatory system that governs global flows of culture and information: copyright.

The Rise of Proprietarianism

Copyright gets stretched way out of shape to accommodate proprietary software. Copyright was originally designed to protect books, charts, and maps. Later, courts and legislatures expanded to include recorded music, film, video, translations, public performance, and finally all media that now exist or have yet to be created. Software is special, though. It’s not just expression. It is functional. It’s not just information. It’s action. In some ways, the inclusion of software among the copyrightable forms of creativity has complicated and challenged the intellectual property tradition. Copyright and proprietary software have metastasized synergistically.

The proprietary model of software production dates to some time in the 1970s, when mainframe software vendors like AT&T and Digital started asserting control over their source code, thus limiting what computer scientists could do to customize their tools. This was an insult to and offense against these scientists who were acclimated to the academic and scientific ideologies that privilege openness and non -monetary reward systems. In a much more precise sense we can date the spark of the conflagration between the then-insurgent proprietary model and the then -dominant hacker culture (Open Source, although they didn't have a name for it then) to Bill Gates’ 1976 open letter to the small but growing community of personal computer hackers warning them that his new company, then spelled Micro-Soft, would aggressively assert its intellectual property claims against those who would trade tapes that carry the company’s software. Since that date, despite frequently exploiting the gaps and safety valves of copyright protection on its rise to the heights of wealth and power, Microsoft and Gates have worked in correlation if not coordination with the steady valorization of intellectual property rights as the chief locus of cultural and industrial policy in the world.

According to the proprietary ideology, innovation would not occur without a strong incentive system for the innovator to exploit for commercial gain. “Fencing off” innovations becomes essential for firms and actors to establish markets and bargain away rights. Because inn ovation so often concerns the ephemeral, trade in the innovation concerns excluding other from using, exploiting, or copying data, designs, or algorithms. The Clinton, Bush, and Blair administrations in the United States and United Kingdom embraced the proprietary model as the key to thriving through the de -industrialization of developed world, thus locking in the advantages that educated, wired nation — states have over those that have been held in technological and economic bondage for centuries. Proprietary models of innovation policy and market relations can be powerful: witness the remarkable successes and wealth of the global pharmaceutical industry, or, for that matter, Microsoft. But they can be just as powerful with limitations that allow for communal creation, revision, criticism, and adaptability: witness the culture of custom cars or the World Wide Web.

In fact, as economist Richard Adkisson argues, the veneration of muscular intellectual property rights as the foundation of innovation and creativity above all other forms has generated an unhealthy cultural and social condition, once which can generate suboptimal levels of investment, asset allocation, and policy choices. Adkisson indicts the widespread belief that intellectual property rights are the best (perhaps only) of all possible arrangements for innovation by alerting us to the “ceremonial status” these rights have assumed. “Ceremonial encapsulation occurs when ceremonial values are allowed to alter or otherwise limit the application of technologies instrumental in the process of social problem solving,” Adkisson writes. Specifically, Adkisson warns that blind faith in high levels of intellectual property protection is of the “future-binding type,” in which technology and mythology act synergistically to legitimize elite control over technologies or other innovative or creative processes.

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Kirsten Comandich

Excerpt taken from “Open Source as Culture/Culture as Open Source”, written by Siva Vaidhyanathan and published in Open Source Annual 2005. The full text is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)