OpenCola and the 'Copy Left' Movement

How bringing info into the public domain is reshaping ideas about intellectual property

Content Tools

Discuss 'open source' in the Life Online forum in Caf? Utne's: cafe.utne.com


The Science of Censorship

John Borowski, a science teacher in Philomath, Oregon, described in our May/June 2001 issue how industry front groups like the Greening Earth Society and the Temperate Forest Foundation had come to dominate the annual National Science Teachers Convention, circulating teaching materials designed to counter environmental education initiatives. 'Their objective is simple: protect industries that despoil the planet and put the brakes on the emergence of environmental awareness among young people,' he wrote.

His criticism sparked a campaign by the Native Forest Council to expose the industry front groups and their propaganda. The campaign, called Children for an Honest Education, was set to launch this March at the giant National Science Teachers Convention in San Diego. But Gerald Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), which sponsors the convention, moved quickly to censor any criticism of corporate exhibitors. In a February 20 letter to Native Forest Council president Tim Hermach, Wheeler wrote that NSTA had received complaints about Borowski's remarks and told Hermach he and his organization would not be allowed to make any 'adverse comments' about other exhibitors or distribute any critical literature.

Okay, that may be a bit of an overstatement, but the new soft drink is different from others in one key respect: It's the world's first '"open-source" consumer product, writes Graham Lawton in the British magazine New Scientist (Feb. 2, 2002). While Coca-Cola and PepsiCo jealously guard their secret formulas, the makers of OpenCola give their recipe away on their Web site, www.open cola.org. Not only that, they encourage people to make the stuff at home, and to modify and improve the recipe at will. There's one caveat: The modified formulas must also be freely available to the public. Why? Because, as the open-source argument goes, if you let your customers play with the formula for your product-whether it's software code or a soft drink recipe-they'll find and fix flaws quicker and cheaper, and think up more creative improvements, than you ever could on your own, even with a huge R&D budget and a team of engineers. In the end, everybody benefits from better software, or better cola, as the case may be.

The open-source movement traces its roots to 1984, when MIT computer scientist Richard Stallman quit his job in academia to start the Free Software Foundation. In the '60s and early '70s, virtually all software was in the public domain, and thus open for constant revision and review. But by the early '80s, nearly all new software was proprietary, or 'closed-source'-its underlying code copyrighted and guarded as closely as the Coke recipe. Stallman felt that this approach hampered the free flow of ideas and ultimately delivered bad software, so he devised a clever legal device known as a General Public License (GPL), or "copyleft." Software that is licensed under a copyleft is in the public domain, and any derivative works that use a piece of copylefted code must also be in the public domain. Thus, the copyleft is like a virus, passing itself on to its descendents.

In fact, this article is an example of this process at work. Since Lawton's New Scientist article included a copy of the OpenCola recipe, the article was published under a copyleft. And since I've summarized several passages from that article (mea culpa!), we're publishing this one under a copyleft as well (see the copyleft notice at the end).

Stallman's concept has taken a firm hold in the computer industry. Thousands of open-source computer programs are now available. The most famous of these is Linux, an operating system that runs more than 18 million computers worldwide, including dozens of Fortune 500 companies' Web servers.

Stallman's idea has spawned a number of creative projects beyond software; OpenCola, originally conceived by a Toronto-based software company as a marketing gimmick, is just the best known. Other projects could have a much more profound impact on the intellectual property landscape. They include:

OpenLaw (http://eon.law.harvard .edu/openlaw/). This Web site allows the entire Internet community to help a team of Harvard Law School professors and students craft legal arguments in a series of cases that pit the public domain against corporate copyright holders. The briefs developed through this project have been credited with convincing the Supreme Court to grant a hearing in Eldred v. Ashcroft, a landmark copyright case seeking to overturn a recent congressional vote extending copyright protection.

OpenAudio (http://www.openmusic registry.org). An experiment created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, OpenAudio is designed to promote sharing and collaboration among musicians and listeners by getting artists to copyleft their work.

Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia .com). Launched in January 2001, this collaborative, copylefted, Web-based encyclopedia already has collected more than 26,000 articles on everything from astrophysics to Enron, with an eventual goal of 100,000 articles.

Since Lawton's article appeared in New Scientist, the magazine's Web site has posted a number of letters from readers proposing other open-source projects, from collaboratively maintained online textbooks to shared knitting patterns.

Coca-Cola may not have to worry much about competition from OpenCola in the near future, but industries whose fortunes are built on intellectual property-software, music, film, pharmaceuticals-should take heed. In barely a decade the open-source movement has grown from a small faction in the halls of university computer science departments into a potent political force. Citizens are increasingly fed up with multinational corporations expanding their control over ideas through patents, trademarks, and copyrights. The open-source spirit and the copyleft may be just the tools we need to tip the scales back in favor of the beleaguered public domain.

The information in this article is free. It may be copied, distributed, and/or modified under the conditions set down in the Design Science License published by Michael Stutz at http://dsl.org/copyleft/dsl.txt.