Open-Source Software: Bad, Evil and Un-American

Red Hat? SUSE Linux? Apache? MySQL? These are bad, evil, un-American entities. Apparently. They and the rest of those dirty rotten open-source software scoundrels are responsible for a "tidal wave of losses in U.S. jobs and competitiveness."

OS Roundup: So says the International Intellectual Property Alliance, a group of trade bodies that includes the MPAA and the RIAA. In its eyes, countries that encourage the use of open-source software are in the same league as those with rampant copyright piracy.

That's the view of the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA), a group of trade bodies that includes such notables as the Business Software Alliance, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The IIPA recently submitted its Orwellian-sounding "2010 Special 301 Report on Copyright Protection & Enforcement," an annual review of intellectual property protection and market access practices in foreign countries, to the U.S. Trade Representative. Ten countries make the "priority watch list" of naughty boys this year (down from 13 last year), including Indonesia.

What has Indonesia done to make it onto the Special 301 Priority Watch list? Turns out it had the temerity to send out a circular endorsing the use and adoption of open-source software within government organizations, which it hoped would "result in the use of legitimate open source and Free Open Source Software (FOSS) and a reduction in overall costs of software."

Who could object to that? The IIPA it seems. A developing nation that seeks to reduce its software costs and sees value in being able to access source code to modify the software it uses to best suit its needs "simply weakens the software industry and undermines its long-term competitiveness by creating an artificial preference for companies offering open-source software and related services."

But wait — there's more of this nonsense: The Indonesian government's circular somehow "fails to build respect for intellectual property rights," and if that wasn't enough, it also "limits the ability of government or public-sector customers to choose the best solutions to meet the needs of their organizations and the Indonesian people."

Excuse me? This is so absurd that it beggars belief. One can see how endorsing piracy might fail to "build respect" for intellectual property rights, but how on earth can endorsing open-source software possibly do that?! And who are the IIAP to tell a sovereign nation what best meets the needs of its people? It's hard to see how transferring large amounts of money in license fees to commercial software companies like Microsoft, instead of spending it on hospitals or schools, best meets the needs of the average Indonesian on the street. And maybe it does, but that's not for the IIAP to decide.

Let's not forget there's still a cost to running open-source software. You may not have to pay for licenses, but you still have to test, support, patch and update the stuff, and doing so may or may not involve paying a subscription. If we're talking about Open Office rather than Microsoft Office the outlay could be minimal. If it's Red Hat Enterprise Linux, MySQL and Apache rather than a Microsoft-based infrastructure behind the scenes, there is still significant cost, but one suspects the TCO of the open-source solution would be lower, despite what Microsoft might have you believe.

It would be ironic — funny, even — if the RIIA's heavy-handed approach ends up being counterproductive. Trying to force an organization to pay for proprietary software when open-source alternatives may better suit its needs and save them money is just as dishonest and harmful as piracy. If we're going to talk about building respect, what about respect for the open-source model?

Besides, if I were Red Hat or any other commercial entity that makes the majority of its profits around an open-source offering I'd be asking the IIPA why potential customers are being placed on the naughty boy list simply for considering my wares. Just because they are open-source it doesn't make them warez.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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This article was originally published on Mar 2, 2010
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