I’ve been writing open source software for a while now. Not that I’m prolific or anything. However, I’ve released most of what I’ve written under open licences. From my point of view, this means I give the source code away with the software, so that people who use it can learn from it, tinker with it, improve it and make uses of it that I’ve never thought of.
Probably my first piece of software that was widely used was something called MIDIMOD, which I published back in 1993. It ran on MS-DOS, and converted one type of music file format to another. I wrote it because I wanted a software tool to do that, and it turned out that some others did too.
Copyright law prevents anyone copying your intellectual work. However, you can provide people with a licence to copy it under certain conditions specified in that licence. Under the Berne Convention, you don’t have to do anything special to get copyright – it applies by default. My software had a licence included with it that allowed anyone to provide the software to anyone else, but they had to provide the source code as well. That way, whomever got the software, no matter who from, could tinker with it. This attribute is shared with the GPL (Gnu Public Licence), one of the most famous open source licences.
About ten years after my small piece of open source software was released into the world, the country of Brazil chose to adopt open source software in their government as a major policy initiative. And just a couple of weeks ago, the President of Brazil accepted from ITU the World Telecommunication and Information Society Award. In accepting the award, President Lula noted the importance of the promotion of open source in establishing an inclusive society.
Brazil is one of the four “BRIC” countries, an acronym coined from the first initials of Brazil, Russia, India and China. BRIC is a term used in economic circles, as those countries are known to be fast-growing, developing nations that may be the dominant economies within fifty years. So, they are certainly ones to watch.
Aside from the initial cost savings of Brazil adopting open source software (which is typically free to licence), the choice of this model is intended to create long-term economic benefits for the country. Rather than importing non-open source software from other countries, primarily USA, Brazil is fostering a local software development community that can tinker with the software the government uses to make it better suited to their evolving needs. Also, since software is typically used to create all types of intellectual property these days, it ensures that the intellectual property created by the government is not locked to software that can be maintained only by its creator, who may choose to give up on it, e.g. if it’s no longer in their commercial interest to do so.
This far-sighted approach by the government of a potential future economic super-power is perhaps instructive for those of us in countries that will likely never be a super-power. Australia could be promoting similar approaches. Who knows – in a decade, perhaps we, too, could be receiving an award from the ITU.