November 9, 2002

Notes on "Open Source: A Revolution in IT and Economics"

A Workshop by Mitchell Szczepanczyk at the Autonomous Zone, November 9,


I feel like I dropped the ball in terms of my participation in the Chicago 2002 protests and actions against the Trans Atlantic Business Dialogue. Respecting my family's objections, I didn't partake in the main protest in downtown Chicago on November 7, 2002, nor did I organize a protest of my own against a November 8 conference at the University of Chicago celebrating the 90th birthday of Milton Friedman. My meager involvement in the anti-TABD actions consisted of giving a workshop at the Alternative Economics Summit on the Open Source movement. I wrote up the following summary of my workshop.

(1) Basics of Open Source

Open Source refers to an approach towards intellectual products of creation, most commonly (but not exclusively) exemplified by computer software. (That's what the "source" in Open Source refers to: the source code of a computer program.) Open Source does not necessarily mean free from cost: open source products may be bought and sold. But roughly speaking there are two key characteristics of Open Source products that distinguish them from proprietary intellectual works:

One: Anyone is permitted to examine the workings, the guts of an Open Source product.

Two: Anyone is permitted to change or modify the guts of an Open Source product, on the condition that whatever changes that occur also become Open Source. (At least in the GNU Linux Open Source model. Other Open Source models may vary.)

These characteristics are guaranteed through a General Public License, which codifies the terms of Open Source.

For more information about Basics behind open source, look at:

(2) Open Source in computers

The Open Source movement really began with computers, and continues to make its most impact on the computer industry. Open Source reflects the ethos toward computing common in pioneering computer research during the 1960s and 1970s. The ethos was one of shared resources and shared work. Anyone could look at anyone else's code for furthering of learning, research, ideas. Plus there's the added advantage of peer review: you can discover and fix my mistakes, and I yours. It was this very openness which helped lay the foundation for such computer advances as the Internet.

Contrast this with the ethos of computers as a business. Any business, like oh say Microsoft, would naturally strive to maximize and privatize profits. The privatization aspect logically extends to privatization of intellectual products, the code in the case of computers, so that only those affiliated with a company can get at the code. This can give proprietary software a disadvantage, since the code can only benefit from a small set of company employees, working under a profit motive (which isn't necessarily the same as a performance motive).

One key player in the Open Source vs. Big Business arena with the Linux Operating System. Linux (pronouned LINN-icks) is named for Linus Torvalds, who in 1991 as a student at the University of Helsinki, wrote an operating system kernel and, in a bold move, made it Open Source. Since then, thanks to a decade of open peer review and open innovation, Linux has grown into a full fledged family of stable, productive operating systems. As one gauge of Linux's success: In 2001, RedHat Linux (a commercially sold type of Linux) accounted for some 24% of desktop systems sales (in contrast to Microsoft Windows' nearly 50% market share). Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has been quoted in the New York Times as describing Linux as a "cancer".

For more information:

(3) Open Source outside of computers

Open Source is not the exclusive domain of computers. Here are some non- computer examples of Open Source:

This is an Open Source, free encyclopedia. Anyone can contribute articles on new topics, or edit articles that have already been submitted.

Open Cola
Coca-Cola's recipe is a trade secret, kept in a vault in the company's headquarters in Atlanta. OpenCola's recipe is written right on every can.

Open Law
No, not all lawyers are power-hungry secretive bastards. Here's a forum at Harvard for crafting laws that actually help people.

For more information, see New Scientist magazine's article on Open Source, which itself is released on an Open Source basis.

(4) Limitations and future directions of Open Source.

It's been my experience that Open Source tends to work best with things that change a lot or need to change a lot, like computer programs or recipes or an encyclopedia. Open Source doesn't really work well with static things like published books.

But here's an Open Source idea for someone to run with: Open Source Genomics. A bit of history first: Thanks to biology-ignorant judges who served in the U.S. Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1980s, it is possible for private corporations (like Novartis, DuPont, and Monsanto, all of whom have devoted serious efforts in recent years to biotech) to patent lifeforms. So, a corporation could set up bioprospecting in countries with a lot of biodiversity (Brazil or Indonesia, for example), harvest some biologically rare and unique plants or animals or humans, sequence their genome (that is, figure out their genetic codes), and claim those sequenced genomes as a patentable invention.

But Open Source offers a possible way to fight back. Someone could go to these biodiverse areas of the world, sequence the genomes first, and then declare that sequenced genome Open Source. That way, corporations would not be able to declare monopoly patent rights, even for a time, on a lifeform for the sake of private profit. Anyone and everyone could benefit from the sequenced genome. One way to do this might be to launch a university initiative of Open Source Genomics, since universities have the necessary combination of computer scientists and conservation biologists to pull this off.

What other directions could open up in this Open Source adventure? Who knows? Open Source could prove to be an amazing resource with untapped potential and promise for freedom and creativity and leveling the playing field. Your ideas and genius could foster unimagined directions in Open Source. Get involved.

These notes are copyleft (c) 2002 by Mitchell Szczepanczyk. These notes may be freely copied, redistributed, retransmitted, or otherwise used or modified provided that this copyleft notice is preserved. "