Is open source a threat to copyright?

Copyright protects open source projects just as it does Microsoft. But for the benefits of open source to grow, perhaps some adjustments are in order.

No. But in terms of our present copyright regime perhaps it should be.

Copyrights, like patents, were put into the U.S. Constitution as incentives to create more. They were seen as limited rights granted for limited times for a limited purpose.

Today’s corporate copyright regime, under which Disney’s Steamboat Willie is still protected, is something quite different. Its time limit is theoretical. Its protections are absolute, extending even to the design of devices that display it. Its purpose is no longer to encourage more production, but to act as a continuing supply of cash to the corporate copyright owner.

This works, for Disney. In the area of software this works for Microsoft. But does it still work for the U.S. economy? Jeffrey Chester of Freepress.org says it does not.

Open source challenges this presumption of copyright absolutism protecting economic growth. In open source, a commons is fostered, and those who use the common store, who also contribute to it, can pile complexity-upon-complexity and build things that would be cost-prohibitive for any single actor to build.

Let me give you a practical example. I’m presently working at a company which is built on Drupal , an open source project licensed under the GPL. If I were using proprietary tools I could not have as complex a system as I have. Since I’m using open source tools I start with a higher level of complexity. So too does everyone else using Drupal. If I create new capabilities, I must share them. In this way the tower of innovation rises higher.

You can only do this with software. Under current law "mashups" like the famous (or infamous" Grey Album , in which a rap album and the Beatles’ White Album were mashed together, are illegal. So not only is technical innovation illegal under our copyright laws, so too is artistic innovation. The purpose of copyright protection is being thwarted.

I’m not saying we should do away with copyright. Copyright protects open source projects just as it does Microsoft. But for the benefits of open source to grow, perhaps some adjustments are in order.

And not in the direction the Congress is looking at.

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