Will The Future Be Open Source?

September 20, 2018

Everyone has ideas. Creativity and innovation have been the cornerstone of human development. They became increasingly important during the modern area and our societies started to implement mechanisms to protect inventors or authors. Created as legal tools to promote the progress of Science and Arts, these laws and regulations aren’t keeping up with the pace of our modern technological changes. Designed to solve yesterday’s problems, these old laws actually hinder today’s boom of creativity and innovation.

The first notion of copyright was written inside the United States Constitution as the Copyright Act of 1790, namely “to promote the progress of Science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors the exclusive right to their respective writings”. In short, copyright is a contract between creators and society; if you decide to create original content, you get promised that no one can copy it for some time, up to 28 years.

That’s great news for authors and creative people, it gives them a good incentive to start working. However, as soon as copyright got officially adopted, few authors argued that 28 years was too short and, several times in history, pushed to extend copyright protection. The latest extension happened in 1998, granting copyrights 70 years after the death of the author or 95 years after the date of publication.

So yes, you will have to wait until 2072 to write your remake of Star Wars “The New Hope” (or pay something to Georges Lucas to do it now, who clearly couldn’t capitalize enough on this content yet). Think about it for a moment, copyright was invented to encourage creativity, but why giving incentives to authors after they are dead?

Well, because it benefits companies. The purpose of the 1998 extension was not to protect artists, but to enrich media companies that hold property rights in their creations. Guess who pushed that 1998 extension? Disney, yes, the company which built millions based on public domain novels, doing reworks on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Robin Hood or Snow White.

Trying to protect the original work of authors, we ended up giving companies the power to stop people from making new creative works based on the efforts of their long-dead founders. A similar issue applies to technical creations.

Samsung ordered to pay Apple $539m after losing US patent lawsuit.

Does this sound familiar? But what does it actually mean?

A patent is a form of intellectual property, granting its owner the right to exclude others from making, using and selling an invention for a limited period of time, usually 20 years.

The problem with this patent system is that it’s been increasingly prone to abuse. Up to the point where certain companies - so-called patent trolls - do not invent or sell anything anymore, they simply buy patents and make money by threatening lawsuits. In 2011, United States business entities incurred $29 billion in direct costs because of patent trolls. That represents an awful lot of money wasted on lawyers that should have gone towards actual innovation.

How exactly did we get ourselves into this mess? It partly has to do with the types of patents that are issued. The Patent Office is supposed to certify inventions that are new, useful and non-obvious. However, during periods of intense technological changes, like ours today, they can get overwhelmed and certify patents that they shouldn't. This is exactly what happened with the arrival of software. Indeed, patents from machines tend to be fairly specific but software patents can be so broad and vague that they could give anyone the ability to later claim ownership for inventions they couldn’t even imagine at the time.

If the copyright and patent models are failing, what could be an optimal system of intellectual property to encourage innovation? Well, maybe the solution lies in their exact opposite; opening creations to the public.

The term open source refers to something made publicly accessible, allowing anyone to use, modify or distribute it. It originated in the context of software development to designate the collaborative effort between multiple independent contributors, working on the same source code. This shared source code is what programmers can manipulate to change how the program or application will work. Thus, anyone who has access to a program's source code can improve that program by adding features to it or by fixing parts that don't always work correctly.

Indisputably, one of the most successful open source products - and one of the oldest - is the GNU/Linux operating system. It later led to Android, a mobile operating system developed by Google and based on a modified version of Linux, which is today running on 70% of every single tablet and smartphone combined. Nowadays, everyone is enjoying the results of those collaborative efforts without thinking about it, browsing the internet using Firefox or getting informed on Wikipedia, the most incredible example of information sharing potential.

This form of collaboration and knowledge sharing quickly became a standard in software development. When everyone is encouraged to work together, the rate of innovation is greatly increased. And while making source code freely available may seem counterintuitive, many viable business models were built upon open source technologies and giants like Google or Microsoft are currently investing intensely into them.

This radical shift from a closed model to an open one unfolded many possibilities in other fields of development, including electronics, medicine, fashion or even beverages. Arduino, for instance, released a microcontroller platform which quickly became a standard for electronics prototyping. Open source cola is another example, a soft drink produced according to a published and shareable recipe, unlike the secretive Coca-Cola formula.

Such a transition could have significant implications. Indeed, by translating the open source ideology from computer code towards real tangible things, we could profoundly modify the way we design, produce and consume everyday objects.