November 11, 2005

Open Source Symposium report

Author: Crystle Numan

Seneca College's fourth annual Open Source Symposium last month drew high profile developers and thinkers from the open source community to Toronto, where they spoke on issues of copyright, literacy, and increasing content restrictions.

Open Source 101

Marcus Bornfreund, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, began the day by challenging everyone to think about copyrights and licenses, and why they matter to open source. Bornfreund, a Canadian translator of the Creative Commons license, spoke of the tension between information wanting to be expensive, as it takes time to reflect and develop ideas, and information wanting to be free, as it not a natural resource that is depleted when used. He said that the balance between exclusive possession to reward the creator and spurring more creativity and universal use can be handled by proper copyright licensing. He discouraged the term "open source software," preferring "open source copyright license." He said developers must choose the right license based on the purpose of the software.

An open source license gives access and allows for collaboration. Bornfreund said he wants to see developers and artists commit to an idea or methodology, such as collaboration and sharing, and to stop the current political and other in-fighting. The traditional model of locking up and selling products "by the pound" which doesn't work in a world of electronic exchange. Collaborating internationally also adds new questions to the mix, as open source is often a social contract. Bornfreund is working with other Canadians, including Bob Young, the former president of Red Hat, to aid in answering some of these questions.

Open source service-centric business model

Bornfreund was followed by Jesse Hirsch, managing partner at Openflows, a consulting company that helps organizations assemble open source products to meet the needs of their clients. Hirsch explained, that in contrast to Bornfreund, he is in the open source community because of its political statement and how it jostles the status quo of software development and economics.

Openflows' business model has two core philosophies: to be service-centric rather than product-centric, and to raise literacy so there is no dependence. The company works to bend software to fit the end user rather than asking the user to change to fit the software. Many people do not ask for changes, because they have been conditioned that these are not available or possible, but Hirsch works hard to change this thinking. Openflows also allows any client to leave once the initial work is done; in fact they encourage it. They show each client how to continue from where Openflows has left off. Many times clients stay because of Openflows' honesty and integrity, as well as the obvious expertise of Openflows.

Openflows is up-front about its open source bias, and in most cases, its clients are receptive. Any code tweaks their consultants make are usually donated back to the open source community, often in the form of new modules.

Reading open source code

The third speaker took a more academic approach As a professor with a Master's degree in both literature and computer science, David Humphrey began by showing the reading list for a first year English literature course and a first year computer science course. He then challenged us to consider why we teach new authors to write by having them read works above their writing level, yet we teach new programmers to code by having them write code using the basic grammar and words of a programming language.

Here lies a wonderful opportunity within open source, Humphrey said, because we can read the source code to learn how constructs and functions can be used. The Oxford English Dictionary contains uses of words within the language rather than definitions. Languages expand and contract based on how words are used. We can learn what choices others have made by reading their code, preferably by reading code written by better programmers than ourselves. Humphrey reminded us that you do not have to fully understand or be able to write code in order to read it. He advocated that developers learn to browse code, not just search it, and watch for interesting code that they would not have created themselves. Do not worry about being exhaustive and reading an entire project, he told developers, and do not let not knowing where to start keep you from starting. And finally, share your own code!

The challenge for open source

A fourth speaker, Stephen Downes, a senior researcher with the National Research Council of Canada, laid out a challenge to not only open software, but open content. He spoke of the different business models and different approaches of commercial/proprietary vs. open source. Part of the distinction is the different distribution models for not only the software, but the content, he said. The current World Wide Web is somewhere between closed and open, what he called "never never land, neither here nor there."

He pointed to closed spaces and markets (subscription-based Web and news sites), closed media formats, and digital right issues cropping up all over the place. He noted a push to close areas of the Web rather than leaving them open. He then challenged the notion that standards will be the way to keep it all open, with examples where the "very things having standards was supposed to stop, has happened" as standards were put in place that were neither good for all, nor available for all. Barriers are continually being throw up, he said: lock-out, lock-in, high bar (difficult to use and connect), flooding (saturating via marketing), and legal barriers such as the DMCA.

He asked if we, as the open source community, are ready to play. He said we are complying and allowing new barriers, or at least not fighting them. He envisioned a continued content clampdown, especially in education, where information is becoming rented and not owned and therefore cannot be shared. Content providers and commercial industries will be and already are teaming together to make it easy to use content (eg. Blackboard's Copyright Clearance), but in the process may lock out open source offerings, he warned. The ideals of research and collaboration are being lost in the buzzword of "compliance."

Downes called on the open source community to understand the ramifications of how content is being "allowed" only to those with the right software or certified hardware. The community also needs to work toward easy interoperable authoring, rights embedded and distributed expressions, content exchange, and open identities. He shared his concern that if we wait too long, we will not have a chance to even be a part of the game.


The entire symposium was intellectually stimulating, highlighting trends in open source and how to do what we do better, and raising important questions: How does the license change the way we write and share information and code? Is a license necessary? How can we teach better computer literacy so users can demand more, or at least specific, usefulness, from their computers and software? How can we work together to ensure software, and even more importantly, content, is available to all?

Copyright 2005, Crystle Numan. Numan is a Web developer with Guided Vision.

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