Today’s Solutions: May 25, 2024

The rising stinginess of intellectual property rights has sparked a creative response: open source.

Tijn Touber | March 2006 issue
It is time to abolish copyright: It is a threat to human rights. So argues Joost Smiers in his book Arts Under Pressure: Promoting Cultural Diversity in the Age of Globalization (Zed Books, 2003). Democracy, according to Smiers, thrives on the diversity of cultural expression, but nowadays we get the same blockbusters and bestsellers served up to us again and again. Why? Large corporations are in possession of stacks of copyrights they acquired without inventing or creating a thing themselves, which allows them to control the distribution channels of cultural expression.
Copyrights and patents serve a noble purpose: protecting an inventor so he can earn money from his creation for a limited period, after which it enters the public domain. But in recent decades, intellectual property seems to have become something that is rigorously guarded forever. There is now a vast machine comprised of detectives and lawyers whose mission is to track down and bring charges against any infringers. Today, anyone who elaborates on the work of other artists, inventors, scientists or similar creative types too literally can expect a court case. The resulting fear can put a damper on creativity and inventiveness.
One way to get around this repressive situation, according to Wired (November 2003), is the so-called open-source method, based on collaboration and free access for everyone. Open source was born in the software-development world during the 1990s, when the Linux operating system was developed and perfected by volunteers around the world and made available to everyone. Open source is now used in many other areas of society. Biologists use open-source genetics and information-science methods to fill enormous databases. The U.S. NASA space agency incorporates open-source principles in its Mars research: The agency has called upon volunteers to identify millions of craters, so a map can be made of the red planet. There are legal and religious open-source projects, too, and even an open-source cookbook.
Open source is a direct threat to the old “free” market economy; it’s paving the way to a genuinely free market, in which “all rights reserved” is being replaced by the more collaborative “some rights reserved,” which offers creative people some reward for their inventiveness but doesn’t stifle everyone else’s creativity . Dozens of new open-source licenses have been created—from Richard Stallman’s General Public License to the Creative Commons’ ShareAlike Agreement—that offer a different vision of intellectual and artistic ownership. Under these licenses, property is something to share, not protect.

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