The Standards Blog

Where (if anywhere) are the Boundaries of the Open Source Concept?

Open Source/Open Standards

In the last several days there have been several stories in the news that highlight the increasing tension between ownership of intellectual property rights (IPR) and the opportunities that become available when broader, free access to those rights is made available.  The three articles that struck me as best proving this point were the announcement by Sun Microsystems that it had released the design for its new UltraSPARC processor under the GNU GPL, a speech by Tim Berners-Lee to an Oxford University audience in which he challenged the British government to make Ordinance Survey mapping data available at no cost for Web use, and reports that a Dutch court had upheld the validity of the Creative Commons license.  Each of these stories demonstrates a breach in traditional thinking about the balance of value to an IPR owner between licensing those rights for profit, or making those same rights freely and publicly available.

In the case of the Sun announcement, that breach is expansion of the open source methodology form software to silicon - a genetic leap, if you will, from one species of technology to another.  Tim Berners-Lee's challenge, on the other hand, is an example of the increasingly popular concept that "data wants to be free," and that the greatest societal benefit may result from allowing it to be so.  And the Creative Commons victory demonstrates that traditional legal concepts can be adapted to successfully accommodate such new realities.

Notably, none of these pieces of news is, at this point in time, either revolutionary or a surprise.  Not only did Sun announce its intention to open source its UltraSPARC architecture on December 6 of last year, but IBM had beaten it to the punch with the announcement last summer that it would open source the architecture of its venerable PowerPC processor. Similarly, Google has already made a wealth of geodata available through its Google Earth project.  And that project is already being used in just the type of creative ways (so called "mashups" and more) to which Berners-Lee alluded in his Oxford speech.  And finally, the use of the Creative Commons has been expanding logarithmically on the Web for some time now.

What this demonstrates is that the broad concept of open source is extensible into many types of situations, and may be managed in multiple ways.  In the first case, the approach has moved from software to chip designs, and the initiative is organized on an open source software project model.  In the second case, raw data is involved, and the delivery mechanism is through public (the Ordinance Survey example) or private (the Google example) means, for two entirely different motivations.  In the third case, it is works of authorship of all types (literary, music, art, etc.) released by the individual author/owner, who may set the boundaries of that access through the simple means of referring to a specific variation of a publicly available license.

What this shows me is that the envelope of free use and public availability of IPR will continue to be pushed in more and more directions, and managed in more and more novel and situationally appropriate ways.  Crucial to this process will be the accumulating evidence in more and more domains that the owners of IPR may gain (indirectly) more by giving than selling (directly).

This is not as novel as might first be imagined.  IPR has always been a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. 

Traditionally, the end has been profit - either directly, through manufacturing and sale, or indirectly, via licensing royalties.  That is still the goal in the Sun example, but the end is achieved in a more subtle fashion, by lowering the cost of innovation through the efforts of non-employees and the hoped-for increase in use of the processor. 

But in the second example, the concept is one of the proper use of data gathered through public funds, and the vastly greater ways in which that data can become useful if it is freely available. 

And in the final example, the ends can be as varied as profit (e.g., a musician can make her downloads free to fans in order to broaden her fan base, leading to more performance engagements as well as royalties for commercial use of the same music) to personal satisfaction, through spreading the author's ideas and reaching kindred spirits (as with this blog) to being part of a like-minded community and the gratification that can be enjoyed through achieving a common goal (e.g., the Wikipedia).

As more and more examples accumulate in increasingly diverse areas where IPR owners demonstrably gain by giving, it can be assumed that the owners of IPR in other areas will give thought to how the technique may be adapted to their own IPR assets and situations.  At some point, the inevitable tipping point will be reached, where an IPR owner will automatically consider which world she wishes her work to live in - open or closed, or in both, depending upon the specific use or user obtaining rights to use the IPR.

Is this inevitable?  Personally, I think it is.  This is one of those examples where the Internet really has "changed everything." 

How?  It would be too simplistic to point simply to the "network effect" (i.e., the value of the network increases exponentially with the number of users that are connected to the network) as the cause.  As significant, or more, are the number and types of activities that  become possible, or practical, only through an affordable network of global scale, and free rights of participation.

I strongly doubt that the open source concept will be applied to every area of endeavor, or that it will predominate in every area where it is applied.  But I also believe that we may be surprised at some of the areas not yet imagined where it springs up next.

It will be exciting to track the spread of the open concept into such new domains.  Decades from now, researchers will certainly study this era to puzzle out how and why what happened, in fact, happened.  Why did it spread to this new domain and not that, and why in that particular order?  What impact did new developments, such as the implementation of the Semantic Web have?  Did events such as this merely accelerate the trend, or did they enable the concept of open IPR to enter into areas that would not otherwise have opted in, because the value proposition could not shift in that area until better tools were available?

At the end of the day, is this really all so surprising?  Really, I think not.  After all, we've been told for years that it is more blessed to give than to receive - and that the meek would inherit the earth.

Personally, I'm rooting for them.

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