Open Source Software and the Intellectual Commons: The Digital Frontier Provides a New Front for the Information Control Wars. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

Many in the library community are trying to convince you that libraries should be embracing Open Source Software. And there are an increasing number of librarian/programmers using the Open Source Software development model to create useful library applications. There is even an Open Source library management system--Koha--in general release for smaller libraries and another in beta-testing in Washington State. The Open Source Software method of software development has proved its mettle in the information industry and is making slow but steady progress within the library community. Its widespread adoption is all but inevitable.

Books as objects can be owned and controlled by individuals, but their content has been considered by society to be the common heritage of all. Publicly funded libraries are part of society's intellectual commons: a place where any citizen can access the cultural heritage contained in those books. The Open Source Software movement seeks to extend the intellectual commons into the realm of computer software, thereby preventing the tight control over information content that comes from controlling the software that makes the content accessible.

An ever-increasing percentage of library resources are born digital and remain digital. Cataloging is being transformed into metadata encoding. Reference is going virtual and is even 24/7 in some institutions. Collection development is becoming the art of the annual lease rather than the art of the permanent purchase. Preservation is moving beyond physical objects to perpetually migrating digital content from one technological environment to another. Libraries are creating virtual information environments to augment--and in some cases replace--their physical environments.

At the same time, the legal and economic status of information is changing rapidly. Who will control access to information and how will society coordinate and manage the flood of digital information being generated? These are questions at the forefront of librarianship and society as a whole. Internet filtering, privacy concerns, government secrecy, copyright issues, information literacy, and the digital divide are now the battlegrounds of the information landscape.

In the midst of this roiling sea of information, Open Source Software has emerged as a phenomenon that is transforming the culture and the information economy. OSS has grown from modest beginnings in the early 1980s to one of the strongest trends in software development. The next generation operating system, Grid Computing, that will enable countless nodes on the Internet to act as one virtual worldwide computer, is based on Open Source Software. And the fastest growing current-generation server operating system, Linux, is based on Open Source Software.

The OSS movement has all the earmarks of a fundamental trend in computing. It has firm ethical, economic, and technical foundations that make it attractive to many constituencies. The more people learn about it, the more they recognize its value. Even the archenemy of Open Source Software, Microsoft, is being forced to make its own code more open in order to compete with Linux. When you see that even those who are struggling against a movement must adopt its characteristics in order to survive its onslaught, then you know you are witnessing a powerful historical trend.

One way to make sense of Open Source Software is to view it as an extension of technical standards to application software programs. Formal technical information standards define protocols for encoding data and for establishing communication interfaces among proprietary and "black box" program applications. An Open Source Software license functions as a legal protocol for developing application code that is as transparent, accessible, and ubiquitous as a formal technical protocol. While its developmental methodology differs from the way traditional technical standards are developed, the same purposes are served: interoperability, architectural coherence, developmental efficiency, and applications of superior usefulness. …


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