Open Source Business Conference 2004

I just returned from an amazing conference in San Francisco where I gained a much greater appreciation of the accelerating shift away from closed-source proprietary software to open-source software and web services that provide value-add on top of a free technology stack, sometimes called the LAMP stack: Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PhP. I was impressed by many things about the conference, including its business tone and convincing statistics about adoption rates of open source, but two talks stood out for me.

Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School professor gave a brilliant talk about where future profits will lie in the software industry as fundamental layers of software become commoditized (including the operating system, web servers, databases, etc).

And Lawrence Lessig, Stanford professor, gave a powerful speech about how stifled innovation will be in the future, and the enormous opportunity cost that is represented by this slowing of innovation, if copyright and patent laws continue to give unfair competitive advantages to huge corporate interests without balancing what is for the public good. The US courts ruled in the 1800s that taking pictures of other people was legal and did not require their permission. So the photography industry exploded and hundreds of millions of people were able to unleash their creativity and add to our culture. Lawrence asked the question, what if the courts had ruled otherwise?

Fast forward to the 1970s-90s where the US courts have extended copyright length and have passed laws which make it very difficult for people to create derivative works and to build on common knowledge in ways that can add value to our business world and to our culture. He predicts that future innovation will be dramatically stifled by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and other “legal” acts that throw out of balance the constitutional idea of promoting inventions and useful arts by protecting them for a short time, but that left so much in the public domain for the common good. The most interesting fact that I learned was that the US used to be a \”pirate nation\” because we didn’t begin recognizing international patent law until 1891. But now we force third-world nations to accept modern intellectual property laws if they want to trade with us.

This seems to be something like Civilized Economic Imperialism. Is our intellectual law policy so prohibitive and are we using our power to restrict other nations from innovating so that our corporations can dominate international commerce even in backward nations that really need a chance to catch up?

Now I’m going to get theological for a minute. If God is truly the source of all inventions and ideas which are truly useful to mankind (a paraphrase of Brigham Young) then how does He feel looking down on nations which want to hoard ideas and profit from them at the expense of the poorest nations on the earth? But then if we have become a secular nation that doesn’t recognize God as the “Giver of all good gifts” then we won’t consider the consequences of our greed anyway. One of the consequences is that more and more people in the world hate the U.S. because of our power and prosperity. USA Today this week showed how unpopular the United States is becoming even among former allies.

I wonder what would happen if we exempted uncivilized and developing nations from our strict intellectual property laws and encouraged them to pirate our content and ideas freely until they begin to emerge out of poverty?

This is definite a thought that never crossed my mind until Lessig taught me a few things about the history of innovation, piracy, patent law, and copyright in the United States. Definitely deep stuff to ponder.

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