OnPoint by Keith Ng

Free as in Freedom

The State Services Commission has re-released its briefing paper on the legal issues surrounding the use of open source software by the state sector to, understandably, little fanfare. OSS is a bit of geekery that doesn't have much public appeal, but then again, so was local loop unbundling.

The SSC has been talking about open source for quite sometime now, with a solid report back in 2003 (makes for excellent background reading). Back then, the report was described as a boost to the open source movement, and it's been slowly working its way through the state sector maze.

The latest paper deals specifically with the legal issues surrounding licencing, which isn't terribly exciting, but a) it's another step in removing the barriers towards OSS use, and b) it was funny because its first draft got a rather prickly response from the Greens.

Why? The report was drafted by Chapman Tripp, "a law firm which has done extensive work for Microsoft in the past", and it described some open source licences as "infectious" and requiring "quarantine". The Greens were convinced that this emotive language stems from the same malice and fear with which Microsoft CEO Steve Bullmer described Linux as a cancer.

I think that most geeks didn't really notice. Not that we'd know emotive language if it crawled inside our cold, beeping hearts, but "infection" is a key idea behind open source licences. The story goes something like this: The creator of the GNU General Public Licence (GPL), Richard Stallman, was a programmer back in the wild days before there was a dot-com to boom. A company called Symbolics asked Stallman for access to the source code of a programme Stallman was working on. Stallman gave them a public domain version of his work, Symbolics worked on it and improved it, but when Stallman wanted access to those improvements, Symbolics refused. As Nelson would say: "Har-har!"

Programmers wanted to share their ideas and collaborate openly. It's an effective way to work because it allows everyone to build on the work of everyone else and draw upon a common pool of resources (in terms of existing programmes as well as expertise). It's similar to what, for example, academics and scientists have done since forever. (If they didn't, they'd have to literally reinvent the wheel every time they wanted to design a car.)

The problem for programmers such as Stallman was that if they relinquished copyright, then someone would come and build on what they created, then close it off and refuse to share it with anyone else. And so the GPL - and the open source movement - was born. Open source licences such as the GPL allow for open access of the source code, but only on the condition that the GPL applies to all subsequent modifications. So in Stallman's case, it would allow other programmers to modify, improve or build upon his work, but the new programmes would also be covered by the GPL, meaning that anything that improved on those would also be covered by the GPL, and so on. That propagation of the licence from the original work to its derivatives is the "infection" - the insidious cancer of freedom.

Anyway, SSC was mortified: they weren't trying to imply that open source was evil at all. They went back and rewrote the report, using "encumbered" and "containment" instead of "infectious" and "quarantine". Now it's marginally more pleasing to the eye and open source gets another boost in the state sector.

But why should us non-programmers care about open source?

The Greens are the only ones who are active on open source at the moment, though Rodney Hide makes noises about it every now and then. "I don't see it hoovering up a whole lot of votes," Nandor frankly admits, but he says that it's a strategic issue.

Germany, Indonesia and China, for example, use OSS because they don't want their national security to be reliant on American software that they can't "pop the hood" on. Without access to the source code, you can't really know what it's doing. South Africa also has a policy of using OSS for government applications, not for security, but to foster their own IT industry. By having more local open source support, they're developing their own base of IT expertise, which is economically beneficial and reduces their demand on foreign skills.

That local IT skills base ("knowledge economy", etc.) is part of the Greens' vision for the NZ economy, and Nandor argues particularly for the use of OSS in the education sector, so that kids will leave school being able to do more than click the Start button. He argues that, while Microsoft is dominant in the market today, these things can change rapidly, and OSS is already gaining ground. Kiwis need to be comfortable working in different operating environments (i.e. Not Windows).

It's a good idea. I remember doing Computer Science at university, there was two distinct group - the computer users and the real computer users. Those who had never ventured beyond the icons and buttons of Windows had this sudden terror in their eyes when they were forced to give the computer commands via keyboard.

"Where do I click? Where do I click? THERE ISN'T EVEN A POINTER!!! EEEEEEEEKKKK!"


Those of us who had mucked around with Linux or even DOS (that thing before Windows) had a much better fundamental understanding of how computers worked. It's a bit like people who study a second language - their first language improves, too, because the difference between the two gives them an appreciation for what language is, beyond the assumptions that monolinguists have.

But good ideas don't necessarily happen. When I asked him why nobody else talks about Open Source, Nandor says that most MPs aren't particularly computer literate, and as a result, are not confident in their ability to engage with it. But then again, hope many MPs know how unbundling works?

Open source in the state sector is slowly happening, though, even without political pressure. It costs a lot for big companies to make a major shift like this, but it's happening. And if you're a small business owner, then you really should be all over this already.

There are many open source programmes available for Windows, too. Firefox and OpenOffice are the most popular. But my favourite project is Transcriber, which helped me transcribe all those interviews last year.

Go on - give them a try. They're not scary at all.