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[FYI] OSS strikes a starkly different, and sometimes opposite, pose from that of traditional capitalist systems


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Friday, August 22, 2003

The quiet war over open-source

By Jonathan Krim / The Washington Post


So alarmed agents of Microsoft sprang into high gear in June after a 
surprising quote appeared in Nature magazine from an official of the 
World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The official said 
the Switzerland-based group of about 180 nations, which promotes 
intellectual-property rights and standards around the globe, was 
intrigued by the growth of the open-source movement and welcomed the 
idea of a meeting devoted to open-source's place in the intellectual-
property landscape.

The proposal for the meeting had come in a letter from nearly 60 
technologists, economists and academics from around the world, and 
was organized by James Love, who runs the Ralph Nader-affiliated 
Consumer Project on Technology.

Love and others argue that in some areas, such as pharmaceuticals or 
software that powers critical infrastructure or educational tools, 
developing nations in particular would benefit from less restrictive 
or alternative copyright, patent or trademark systems.

In short order, lobbyists from Microsoft-funded trade groups were 
pushing officials at the State Department and the U.S. Patent and 
Trademark Office to squelch the meeting. One lobbyist, Emery Simon 
with the Business Software Alliance, said his group objected to the 
suggestion in the proposal that overly broad or restrictive 
intellectual-property rights might in some cases stunt technological 
innovation and economic growth.

Simon insists that his group does not oppose open-source software, or 
discussion of the issue, but fights to defend the notion that a 
strong system of proprietary rights offers the best avenue for the 
development of groundbreaking software by giving its inventors 
economic incentive to do so.

And he said that the BSA's governing board, composed of several 
companies in addition to Microsoft, unanimously opposed the letter 
and the meeting.

The U.S. government, which wields considerable clout in WIPO, might 
not have needed prodding from Microsoft to demand that the idea of an 
open-source meeting be quashed.

Lois Boland, director of international relations for the U.S. Patent 
and Trademark Office, said that open-source software runs counter to 
the mission of WIPO, which is to promote intellectual-property rights.

"To hold a meeting which has as its purpose to disclaim or waive such 
rights seems to us to be contrary to the goals of WIPO," she said.

She added that the WIPO official who embraced the meeting had done so 
without proper consultation with the member states, and that WIPO's 
budget already is strained and cannot accommodate another meeting 
next year.

Boland said that if groups such as Love's want an international forum 
for discussion of open-source, they need to find another organization 
to host it.

The WIPO official, Francis Gurry, did not return numerous calls for 
comment, but the organization has said it no longer has plans for an 
open-source gathering.

The meeting dust-up is further inflaming an argument that has the 
fervor of religious debate.

Open-source proponents note that its software is here to stay, 
gaining adoption within the federal government and elsewhere. And 
they argue that many open-source models rely on property rights 
through licenses, but apply them in less traditional ways.

More broadly, though, they envision a world in which the Internet is 
the connective tissue that creates a public commons, a place where 
art and technology should be shared as well as bought and sold. Why, 
they ask, should that not be debated with vigor?

But open-source is not just a political challenge. It strikes a 
starkly different, and sometimes opposite, pose from that of 
traditional capitalist systems.  

And that prospect quickly draws the lobbyists, even if the public 
isn't tuned in. 

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