Friday, October 07, 2005

All it takes is one look in my closet to know where I stand.

There they are, all stacked neatly in a cabinet: the brown Riojas, the classic Arizonas, the wine-red Gizehs that took me all around Sweden, the black Ashbys that I wore every day throughout my pregnancy. Yes, I'm a Birkenstocks gal, dyed-in-the-wool. Even Dear Hubby's Wall Street wingtips have been discarded, replaced long ago, not with Birkis -- he, after all, is still in the corporate world -- but with shoes far less Gordon Gekko, far more Jim Anderson in style. Much to DH's feigned chagrin, my commitment to granola does not stop at the breakfast table.

Which is why it wasn't at all surprising to find myself mentally siding with the supporters of copyleft even before I finished reading this week's blog assignment article. The question of copyleft vs. open/open is a no-brainer to me: if something is created with the intention of being made available free of charge, it's inappropriate -- not to mention downright nervy -- to develop a variant of the original and start charging money for it. It puts me in mind of the people who get free stuff from freecycle and then turn around and sell it on ebay. Poor form, to say the least.

Although, I must admit, as I played Devil's Advocate with myself I couldn't help but compare the copyleft vs. open/open debate to the debate that's going on in the pharmaceutical industry these days. The essential question there is should big pharmaceutical companies be allowed to retain copyrights or patents on the medicines they develop. Retaining these rights means the companies can essentially charge whatever they want for their products...even if that means poor people -- even whole nations of them -- suffer and die for lack of money to purchase lifesaving drugs. The drug companies, of course, argue that without the ability to charge outrageous prices for their drugs, there would be no incentive for them to invest in R&D, and less research means fewer cures overall; opponents argue that it's unethical (to say the least) to develop cures that only the world's richest can afford, and that there must be some mechanism for getting the same medicines to the poor without waiting for the drug companies' licenses to expire.

However, there's a key difference between the two debates. Drug research requires funding -- huge amounts of cash to stock the labs and pay the scientists and run the triple-blind studies.... The days of a lone man scraping mold out of a spoiled petri dish and developing a miracle cure are gone. But coding, good coding...that can and is being done every day by everyone from professionals right on down to intrepid high-schoolers hanging out in their parents' basements. The number and virulence of computer worms and viruses -- many of which were developed by students -- seem to indicate that powerful programs can be developed without any corporate revenue supporting them.

The argument that open/open licensing is necessary in order to get vendors to invest in open-source educational software is a moot one. In reality, it doesn't matter much whether or not vendors get involved simply because their greatest resource -- ready access to cash -- is one that the open-source world can get by without. Would a steady influx of cash be nice? Probably. Is it worth sacrificing the "open" nature of open source? Probably not.

"For copyleft advocates, the issue boils down to trust." In a world where the President of the United States is unrepentant about deceiving the public in order to wage a personal war...where corporate malfeasance and the fleecing of the "little guy" have become the business of the day...where public confidence in officials of all stripes is at a record low, is it any wonder that trust is in short supply? The online community sans the vendor industry is talented enough that I for one would be willing to lose the possibility of corporate sponsorship in exchange for guaranteed free access to derivative programs. Let Corporate America invest their money in creating their own paid-licensing programs from scratch instead of building on the backs of free programs and then expecting to turn a profit.

Quintessential capitalist Ronald Reagan is famously quoted as saying "Trust but verify." How deliciously ironic that the arguably anti-capitalist copyleft advocates are following the late president's advice. What better verification can there be for maintaining the accessibility of free programs than copyleft? And when in history have we more surely needed that kind of verification than now?

1 comment:

J Tzanis said...

Great analogy (Hmmm... shoulda known there'd be shoes involved in this somehow...)