Free Software=Piracy?

Via Reihan, a trade group called the International Intellectual Property Alliance is apparently lobbying the US Trade Representative to treat preferential adoption of free software as equivalent to copyright infringement. Bobby Johnson at the Guardian explains:

Last year the Indonesian government sent around a circular to all government departments and state-owned businesses, pushing them towards open source. This, says the IIPA, “encourages government agencies to use “FOSS” (Free Open Source Software) with a view toward implementation by the end of 2011, which the Circular states will result in the use of legitimate open source and FOSS software and a reduction in overall costs of software”.

Nothing wrong with that, right? After all, the British government has said it will boost the use of open source software.

But the IIPA suggested that Indonesia deserves Special 301 status because encouraging (not forcing) such takeup “weakens the software industry” and “fails to build respect for intellectual property rights”.

I don’t understand why USTR is in the business of bullying other countries into changing their copyright laws in the first place. But taking that policy as a given, I think Bobbie Johnson’s reaction to this is spot on:


I know open source has a tendency to be linked to socialist ideals, but I also think it’s an example of the free market in action. When companies can’t compete with huge, crushing competitors, they route around it and find another way to reduce costs and compete. Most FOSS isn’t state-owned: it just takes price elasticity to its logical conclusion and uses free as a stick to beat its competitors with (would you ever accuse Google, which gives its main product away for free, of being anti-capitalist?)…

Let’s forget that the statement ignores the fact that there are plenty of businesses built on the OSS model (RedHat, WordPress, Canonical for starters). But beyond that, it seems astonishing to me that anyone should imply that simply recommending open source products – products that can be more easily tailored without infringing licensing rules – “undermines” anything.

Quite right. My only quibble is the suggestion that IIPR are advocates of “free-market capitalism.” There’s nothing free-market about this kind of rent-seeking.

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3 Responses to Free Software=Piracy?

  1. Rhayader says:

    Tim do you have any idea of the extent to which open source software is used in the US public sector? It seems like for some applications — breathalyzers, voting machines, what have you — an open-source solution would have much greater integrity, as long as you could protect whatever privacy we have left.

  2. There’s an interesting difference to be drawn between software that’s available for public inspection and software that’s licensed for modification and redistribution by third parties. In the cases you’re mentioning, availability for inspection is really important but modification might not be so crucial. In any event, I’m not aware of any companies in these industries whose software is open source in either sense of the term. They definitely ought to be, at least in the first sense.

  3. Pete says:

    Exactly. As far as I can see adoption of free software – hell, of open standards generally – is mostly just a great strategy for industries who are scared that proprietary standards are going to give their competitors a means of locking them out the market.

    The whole “it’s an attack on the principal of property” meme is just stupid. The only reason it gets a hearing is because it sounds good to lefties who like to imagine that they’re sticking it to the man by using Linux, and great to big businesses trying to protect their monopolies.

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