Pros & Cons > Arguments about open source > Principles & rights
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Principles & rights

While few decisionmakers have the luxury of principles as significant criteria, open source represents several good principles in technology.

photo of school computer


Philosophy or money

The debate is really about philosophy, not money.

The original debate over free software was about philosophy. Proponents like Richard Stallman are more concerned about principles and rights than economics. However, the newer open source movement is more appealing to countries like South Africa and companies like IBM and Sun. While they may find the philosophy attractive, they choose open source for very pragmatic reasons. For example, the leaders of South Africa are troubled by the hundreds of millions of dollars their nation spends on licenses and expertise. They're choosing open source to foster a stronger domestic technology industry. IBM and Sun are aggressively fighting Microsoft's plans for the next generation of networked computing. This debate is now about greater financial independence and potentially lower TCO. Current K-12 users have more success promoting migration to open source when they talk about saving money. The philosophy is inextricable, but in business, politics, and especially schools, the debate is about money.

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Schools taking risks

Schools don't have the luxury of experimenting.

Migration can be challenging and disruptive. Schools are currently facing a variety of problems, including uncertain finances. Educators may not have the time or energy to revisit existing technology. However, open source software may solve more problems than it creates, after the initial investment and migration. Stakeholders may be more receptive to change when the potential TCO advantages are explained. Current users feel they would be irresponsible to exclude any option that could maintain or improve existing technology at a lower cost. And as schools upgrade or replace technology, they may have the opportunity to explore open source with reasonable risk. For example, a school could install OpenOffice.org on all new computers, and only purchase Microsoft Office if OpenOffice.org was found inadequate.

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Software is better when it's transparent.
Proprietary companies are already making their software transparent.

If software is transparent, any programmer can see what happens and why. Proprietary software is not transparent. Most computer users are familiar with the strange error messages that appear when a program fails. Often, these messages use special codes to express the problem. These codes point to secrets without actually revealing what went wrong. Only someone who knows the secrets can understand the codes. For example, Microsoft Certified Engineers are taught to decypher these codes for Microsoft products. This agitates open source proponents because they want more independence and competitive service in technology.

Consider the analogy of an automobile. If a car was proprietary, there would be no oil gauge, tachometer, battery meter, etc. When the engine failed, the car would just offer a special error message. Only a certified mechanic could make sense of that message.

Because open source programs aren't trying to protect secrets, they can offer more exact information about an error. This allows any programmer to identify and fix problems. This is the same principle that motivates teachers to use open gradebooks; students deserve a chance to see how their grade is calculated, and to challenge possible errors. It's the suspicion of such errors that causes people to distrust proprietary programs or closed gradebooks. Some countries are suspicious of proprietary software because it could contain spyware or other security threats.

Companies like Apple and Microsoft sometimes open some of their code to some colleges and universities for educational purposes. (Microsoft calls this "shared source.") Microsoft is also starting to open their code to countries like China. This open code is not open source because of the restrictive licensing agreements involved. Only the proprietary company can make changes or distribute copies. Also, it's unlikely that K-12 schools will be given access to code or significantly benefit from others' limited access.

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Open source is more empowering.

Open source empowers the user more than proprietary software can. (See: "What does 'free' really mean?") Any user can fix the bugs or add the features that matter most to them (or hire someone, or collaborate with others). A software company may decide a bug or feature isn't critically important to most of their users (or their sales). Open source frees the users to decide for themselves.

This empowerment is most visible in backend solutions like servers and networks. The technicians who build and manage these solutions often have the freedom to choose any software they want as long as it works. These technicians are usually interested in the easiest, most powerful solutions. Many have chosen open source. With proprietary software, technicians may more like liaisons since they must rely on a software company for help.

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Open source is community-driven & community-serving. 

Open source exists because a large community of motivated, generous programmers work together. Some are corporate employees, but the movement thrives on volunteers. Current users are often eager to help other educators and give back to the community. Even users without programming or other technical skills find ways to help by filing bug reports, writing documentation, or answering questions on email lists. Current users report a sense of belonging and accomplishment by sharing and collaborating. This cooperation and focus on the common good resonates with why they work in education.

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The best courseware will be more compatible with proprietary software.

Open publishing is similar to open source except the issue is content instead of software. If content is published under an open license, anyone can use, change, or redistribute it as he sees fit. Some educators and institutions are opening their curriculum (primarily through the Web). This subset of open publishing is called "open courseware." Universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are leading the open courseware movement. An MIT spokesperson explains: "We are fighting the commercialization of knowledge, much in the same way that open-source people are fighting the commercialization of software." (J.P. Potts in Festa, 2002)

While open source and open courseware are separate issues, the principles and community are very similar. Open courseware projects try to use and support open source software to serve their goal of universal access. To ensure that access, open courseware is still accessible through proprietary programs (e.g. Microsoft Explorer, Adobe Acrobat). To the extent the principles overlap open courseware may be a compelling reason to use open source software. A school may want to adhere to the singular idea of open access, to align policies on software and courseware.

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Intellectual property rights

Open source theatens intellectual property rights.
Linux is a cancer... - Steve Ballmer, CEO, Microsoft

Opponents argue that open source threatens intellectual property rights. The CEO of Microsoft has said, "Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches." (Steve Ballmer, in Newbart, 2001) This is a specious argument designed to scare people away from learning more about open source. It's inspired by the most radical open source license: the GPL. Source code released under the GPL can't be included in closed, proprietary software. But any content created using open source software (including GPL software) still belongs to the author. For example, authors who create documents in OpenOffice.org still have copyrights on their work. With open source, only programmers can lose their intellectual property rights. They are willing to give up exclusive ownership of their code to contribute to the community and benefit from community-created programs. Authorship is still respected and rewarded. Open source does not mean public domain, although some licenses explicitly make a program public domain.

Almost all software is created from existing software, using existing designs ("art") and common libraries of code. Hypothetically, if all software was licensed under the GPL then it would be almost impossible to create proprietary software without starting from scratch. But few people want or expect all software to become proprietary. The open source model allows companies to create proprietary software while preserving a commons of open source code (e.g. Apple OS X and Darwin).

The technology offers many potential advantages and challenges, but it's alarmist to equate open source with the theft of intellectual property. New business models and social norms are developing, just as they have in the past.

Music publishers tried to sue player-piano makers out of existence, fearing that no one would ever buy sheet music again. Fifty years later, in 1984, Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti uttered what's undoubtedly the most infamous comment in the history of technophobia: "The VCR is to the American film industry what the Boston strangler is to a woman alone." Today, video rentals account for more than 40% of studio revenues. (Black, 2002)

The distinction between code and content may be blurring, especially on the Internet. Some code may be meaningless without content, and vice versa. If schools join the open courseware movement, they can be strategic in choosing and creating software with desirable licenses to preserve the amount of intellectual property rights they want.

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Civil & digital rights

Proprietary software threatens civil rights.

As society and the economy become more dependent on technology, the implications for civil rights become more vivid. Some proponents warn that proprietary software threatens civil rights in the digital age by giving too much power to software companies and governments. Even so-called "offline" rights are now affected by software (e.g. medical records, credit ratings). Proponents see an assault on privacy, free speech, freedom of assembly, and similar rights, and threats to fair business and transparent government.

Schools are a traditional crucible for debate about some of these issues. Educators should be aware of the debate since the software they choose will affect their students' rights as well as their own. Any proprietary or open source system must be secure, to protect data like financial records, medical records, and job performance. Such security should be in the hands of those most liable: the system administrators.

The early Internet had few rules. The original network was designed for expression and collaboration. Over time, growing concerns about security and crime as well as minors accessing inappropriate content have lead to legislation and technology for monitoring users and censoring content. While the general intentions may be good, the results can be abhorrent. Proponents don't trust companies to create software in the best interests of users' rights, and argue that software itself creates an architecture that fosters totalitarian power. Lawerence Lessig explains:

This code, like architecture in real space, sets the terms upon which I enter, or exist in cyberspace. It, like architecture, is not optional. I don't choose whether to obey the structures that it establishes -- hackers might choose, but hackers are special. For the rest of us, life in cyberspace is subject to the code, just as life in real space is subject to the architectures of real space. (Lessig, 1998)
Those who know the secrets have power over those who don't.

Lessig emphasizes the control code creates. This includes control of content: "how it is played, where, on what machines, by whom, how often, with what advertising, etc." (Lessig, 2001) This idea of control-through-architecture is especially apparent in formats. For example, HTML is an open format so anyone can create and distribute a Web browser. But if HTML became a proprietary format, then only certain Web browsers would work. A browser monopoly would exist, and the monopolists could influence the Internet in profound ways. They could include spyware to monitor users and collect data (e.g. for immoral marketing or unjust law enforcement). They could prevent certain pages from displaying properly if they disliked the pages' owners (e.g. other companies, consumer activists). With a proprietary browser it would be difficult to detect or prove these violations. With a monopoly these violations wouldn't even need to be secret. Users would have to consent to the monopolists' terms in order to use the Internet. This is a critical idea in open source: with secret code and formats, those who know the secrets have power over those who don't.

With open source it's nearly impossible to hide spyware or similar threats to privacy and free speech. No single company can control open source so a monopoly can't form. This makes it difficult for unscrupulous corporate employees or over-zealous law enforcement personnel to leverage control of code to violate rights. This is very similar to the principles of transparent government and freedom of information, which so-called "sunshine laws" try to protect. Citizens deserve to know what their elected representatives and government officials do with their taxes and authority. Just as "democracy dies behind closed doors," proponents fear that proprietary software can protect corrupt business or unconstitutional government.

Open source will protect civil rights.

Open source may be essential to protecting civil rights in the digital age. Proponents believes it's naive to assume the Internet will naturally resist totalitarian control. The people with the source code control the software, the software controls the architecture, and the architecture protects or violates user rights. People may continue to cede rights to software companies and governments for convenience and alleged lower costs. Open source tries to prevent monopolies, spyware, and other threats, but people must assert their rights as consumers and citizens, not just with software.

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Computers for everyone

Open source will mean computers for everyone.

Open source software can be used and distributed for free. However, that does not mean free computers for everyone. Certainly, projects like Free Geek are combining recycled hardware and open source to make computers available to anyone. In a similar fashion, schools may be able to combine inexpensive or recycled hardware with open source at low costs. This could make cheap computers ubiquitous in schools, like calculators or textbooks. But without adequate, reliable hardware and sufficient deployment expertise, open source is useless (or worse).

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Evil software

Open source is anti-business, anti-democracy, anti-American, etc.

Open source is not communism or anarchy. Old and new American capitalists are calmly thriving by using and selling open source software. Open source may represent a paradigm shift for the technology industry, but it's not anti-business. As the car analogy suggests, open source may undermine some existing businesses. There's little reason to buy a proprietary program when a comparable open source alternative exists. However, the software industry was already transforming from a product model to a service model. Companies like IBM are thriving with open source because they offer quality service. Companies like Red Hat sell open source software with value added, including service. The community helps supply the quality code.

Open source is a model of individuals with better ideas, organizing projects of volunteers, and perhaps becoming entrepeneurs in the process. That's a very democratic, American model. Schools should dismiss arguments about "evil software" without hesitation.

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Open Options is a product of the Northwest Educational Technology Consortium. These materials are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission. The following acknowledgment is requested on materials which are reproduced: Developed by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, Portland, Oregon.
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