Sometimes, people suffer from prejudices towards things new. Despite information about open-source being more and more widespread, the knowledge about this topic is still somehow confused.
Many people confuse open-source software with ‘pirate’ software, on the false assumption that, because it is free or no payment is required to acquire a licence, that it is automatically illegal. Others, instead, think that, because it is free, it is not quality software. As a matter of fact, very often, the contrary is true, as open-source software is continually upgraded and improved thanks to hundreds of developers who, on a voluntary basis, contribute with their work. We are talking about the concept of sharing of ideas, that is, give without asking anything in return. All the developers who contribute with their know-how to improve open-source software, increase exponentially the product quality for users.
The concept of open-source is, of course, connected to that of licence and copyright. The latter was born in England in 1700 (1), at the time of the Industrial Revolution, with the aim of protecting creative products and works by means of patents. As a matter of fact, in the case of software, the creative work is not bound to the physical medium on which it is carried out, therefore there is no need to protect creative works by a patent. Thanks to the Internet, access to knowledge is open to everybody, and in real-time, we are able to read e-books and travel around with a thousand books stored in an e-book reader.
Richard M. Stallman and the Four Principles of Freedom
About twenty years ago, a real protest movement against the concept of copyright on software arose. The concept of ‘copyleft’ was introduced, conceived by Richard M. Stallman in 1985, who interpreted in an alternative way an author’s rights on computer software products and stated that software source codes should be public. The ever more rapid evolution towards liberalisation in several fields, with a trend towards the abolition of corporative bodies, professional bodies and restraints on monopoly rights applying to many goods, therefore covered works of creative ability. Within this trend, open-source software applications and operative environments developed. They are created and diffused at no cost by workgroups such as those of Linux, Ubuntu and some others.
At the beginning of 80s, Richard M. Stallman first formalised the concept of free software. His definition is summarised in the following Four Principles of free software:
- Freedom 0: the software can be used freely for any purpose;
- Freedom 1: freedom to study the way the programme operates and to adapt it to your purposes, on condition that the adapted text of the programme is available;
- Freedom 2: you may redistribute the copies of the programme freely, to help your neighbours, and
- Freedom 3: the programme may be modified and improved freely. The improvements may be released to the public as well, to profit the whole community.
The concept of copyright is obsolete and related to a world which is technologically different from the current one. We change and adapt everything, including our lifestyles, according to new conditions, so there is no point in remaining bound to such an obsolete idea as software patents. However, multi-national companies have to protect their economic interests. Just think about how many programmes, once you install them on your PC, cannot be re-installed on another machine, even if they are yours and you work on them, and that notwithstanding your user-purchased licence In some case even, you cannot re-install a programme more than three times on the same PC, even where you have had to re-format the PC.
Moreover, some software manufactures use means which are in breach of the user’s privacy with the aim of getting to know the number of machines the user installs the same software. They include into the programme some ‘bugs’ which on the first installation of the programme notifies the manufacture’s website. Also, some software programmes require a re-activation after three years, which of course is not free as you have to pay a percentage on the original licence which you have already purchased. Why? Should I go back to the shop and pay again for a dress every now and then even if I already bought it and paid in full?
Thinking about the original definition of open-source software, maybe the appropriate term should be free software, so to avoid any misunderstanding, as previously mentioned. The concept of free software draws the attention to the ethical need of free movement of ideas, which cannot be bridled by copyright laws. If we think about that concept deeply enough, we see such a limitation is impracticable, because ideas, concepts, creative works change on a continuous basis, hundreds of software applications are developed, updated and improved. How is it possible to claim intellectual property rights on a product which is never the same when compared to its original version? Besides, ideas are independent from the media conveying them. That alone would be a sufficient reason to eliminate copyright.
P. Lévy and Derrick De Kerchove
The internet multiplied and expanded the space of knowledge, information travel around the world in real-time and in build-up. All this knowledge and information create a common space on a global level, where limitations and restrictions are an absurdity. That space is where the output of collective intelligence converge as theorised by P. Lévy (2) n 1994. The concept ofcollective intelligence joins that of connective intelligence formulated by Derrick De Kerckhove (3), according to which modern intelligence passed through three phases: private intelligence, conveyed through printed books; first type of collective intelligence, promoted by radio and TV; and the last phase of intelligence implemented through the Internet, a sort of halfway between the two. Why is the intelligence formulated by De Kerckhove connective? Exactly because it is characterised by collaborative work. All those who consciously contribute, establish a mental bond through which creation and production of new ideas accelerate. Of course, the place where connective intelligence is better carried out is the Internet, where knowledge build up, but no identity gets lost, on the contrary everybody can share his/her ideas and thoughts.
The Creative Commons licences
A widespread prejudice among people is that if you publish a work on the internet without protecting it by a copyright, that work automatically is ‘stolen’ from its author. That is not true at all, as several alternative licences exist to protect works. They are the Creative Commons licences, created by the Creative Commons Corporation in 2001, a non-profit organisation constituted by a group of jurists at Stanford University in California, established with the aim of promoting a debate on a worldwide basis about copyright and how to manage it in the new era of the Web 2.0. Therefore, we pass from the concept of All Rights Reserved to Some Rights Reserved, a kind of protection of works that is halfway between the absolute protectionism of copyright and the risk of suffering abuses in case the author decides not to protect work at all or to protect it inadequately.
Through the Creative Commons website, anybody can decide which licence is most appropriate to their needs using a simple online guided procedure.
The creation of a custom licence represents a private law deed that is as a voluntary deed which, nonetheless, should comply with the rules of Civil Law. Therefore, it is not true that one can write everything in a licence and it is for that reason that Creative Commons elaborated a standard series of licences which reflect the different types of use. Moreover, these licences are structured according to three types: the Legal Code, the Common Deed and the Digital Code.
- Legal Code: it is the real licence, consisting of eight articles and outlines the operative principles of its distribution and application. Therefore, it is a document written in legal jargon typical of licences and which, even though it is necessary as we are talking about licences, is not the best choice if we have the average user in mind. Who is willing to read, for example, a two-page warranty of a washing machine? Often we tend to skip the pages written in legal jargon. In the case of a Creative Commons licence, though, the improper comprehension of its articles could lead to mistakes or false ideas about its contents and real meaning.
- Common Deed: it is a new and more average user-friendly version of the Legal Code. Nonetheless, it is not a licence and every time you quote it, you should also quote a link to the Legal Code.
- Digital Code: it consists of a series of metadata attached to digital files which can be indexed by search engines and which are the same all over the world.
Choosing the correct type of licence to protect your work is important because if you label a work with the incorrect licence you cannot modify it later, when your article, for example, has already been published on the internet. Of course you can attribute a different licence to your next works, but that operation does not affect your previously published work. If you allow the commercial use of an article, you cannot press the ‘Undo’ key! For that reason, it is important to review all the licence types and select the most appropriate one for your needs. Notwithstanding, the author can use his/her work without any limitation as he/she is not subjected to the licence as other users are.
Books, music, pictures, articles for the web, texts written for blogs, and other creative works are all copyright-protected works and therefore can be safeguarded by a Creative Commons licence, provided that we make sure that we are entitled to use it for a certain work. On the contrary, the Creative Commons licence does not apply to software. It is important to remember that every author, when he/she completes a work, automatically acquires its rights. No certification by any organisation or body is needed.
As Seneca said, The best ideas are common property. (4)
This article will be published on the January 2012 issue of the ITI Bulletin.
2. L’intelligence collective, pour une anthropologie du Cyberspace, Editions La Decouverte, Paris, 1994
3. Brainframes, Technology, Mind and Business, Bosch & Keuning, 1991
4. Epistles XII, 11, On old age