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Open source movement screws up again

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It’s a sad fact of life that those in charge are often the last to see the inevitable.

And this had been ably demonstrated yet again over an issue set to blow up in the next few months: the sudden u-turn by the World Intellectual Property Organisation over a meeting to discuss the issues surrounding “open and collaborative development models”.

WIPO describes itself as “an international organisation dedicated to promoting the use and protection of works of the human spirit”. It seems only natural then that when the organisation’s head, Dr Kamil Idris, received a letter in July signed by 59 highly respected and Nobel-prize-winning economists, academics and IT experts asking for a meeting to “examine new open collaborative development models, and to discuss their relevance for public policy” that he would view it favourably.

He did and no less than the imposing figure of Francis Gurry, WIPO’s assistant director and chief lawyer, told Nature magazine: “The director general of WIPO looks forward with enthusiasm to taking up the invitation to organise a conference to explore the scope and application of these models as vehicles for encouraging innovation.”

The letter was written with a September meeting of WIPO in mind, where its members would discuss what was on the agenda for the next two years. The letter pointed to several examples of a new style of collaboration made possible through new Internet technology. Among them were Net protocols, the Web itself, the Human Genome Project, the SNP Consortium (biomedical work), GPS, and open academic and scientific journals. However, also included in the pile was “Development of Free and Open Software”.

Despite Mr Gurry’s and apparently Dr Idris’ firm backing for such a discussion, in just a few weeks, the organisation suddenly changed tack and said that such a meeting was not going to go ahead.

Mr Gurry - not a man prone to changing his mind - was quite candid to Technology Daily when explained the following month: “What happened in the intervening weeks is that a request for an open discussion on a range of ‘projects’ became transformed into an increasingly domestically, as opposed to internationally, oriented, polarised political and trade debate about one only of those ‘projects’, namely open-source software.

“In those circumstances, the possibility of conducting a policy discussion on intellectual property of the sort that might be appropriate for an international organisation devoted to intellectual property became increasingly remote.”

The open-source software devotees who had signed the original letter - including the all-too-familiar names Ralph Nader, Bruce Perens, Eric S. Raymond and Richard Stallman - immediately sensed the hand of Microsoft.

With intensive lobbying Microsoft managed to get the meeting pulled, it is said. It even got acting director of international relations for the US Patent and Trademark Office on side, Lois Boland. Boland had several arguments over why such a meeting at WIPO was not appropriate.

First, she said, “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”. Secondly, Gurry had backed the meeting without proper consultation of member states. Thirdly, WIPO’s budget couldn’t stretch to another meeting. And lastly, ideas for meetings come from within and not outside WIPO.

Now, it certainly doesn’t help that Ms Boland’s arguments are complete nonsense and can be very easily picked apart with reference to WIPO’s own stated goals, previous meetings and procedures (a simple search on “open source” on WIPO’s site shows that the movement has hardly passed the organisation by). But, with depressing predictability, the open source posse came screaming in, guns blazing, crying out all manner of ancient curses, and screwed it all up.

It was this, just as much as pressure from the US and Microsoft that saw WIPO shelve any such plans. It has alot of other issues to discuss and spending valuable time and money on creating a headache for itself was not something that topped the list.

However, while the open source movement’s zealotry has again been its own worst enemy (EU patent law Part II), that is not the main issue at stake here. Plus, open source has distinct strengths that will make WIPO’s decision better for it in the long run.

First, it is undoubtedly right. No one can argue against the new ways of working that the Internet has thrown up. They can only be seen as a real and positive influence (the flip side being the currently fashionable virus writers). If it would learn to shut it trap occasionally, this fact will get it most of the way.

Secondly, it has become an efficient lobbying body in its own right. This whole situation was really decided at the end of September but the Web is starting to rise up and discussion of the situation (albeit pretty partisan) is increasing across the Net. It threatens to blow up and into the mainstream media. We shall see.

However, the main issue is not the bickering and shouting, it is the failure of those in power to see what is going on or to perceive open collaboration as a threat. In the same way that the short-sighted MPAA and RIAA have made the very idea of Internet media files synonymous with stealing and evil deeds, Microsoft and various other threatened organisations have done a good job of turning open source into a pariah.

What they don’t realise and we do is that they will soon be reliant on the very things they are spending so much effort demonising. That governments and international organisations can’t see beyond the people up close to them and waving their wallets to obscure those behind is sad, and irritating. But it is also the way of the world. ®

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