Sunday, January 18, 2009

Founding Fathers Sanction Open Source Society

No, the Founding Fathers have not come back to life - although if they did, they wouldn't last long after witnessing what's left of the Constitution - however, their writings and example send a clear message on the topic of "open access".

Some proprietary companies claim and will continue to claim that open source or open access is communist or anti-American. The Founding Fathers would have claimed the opposite, as they had definite opinions on the free flow of information and remained very skeptical about copyright laws. They would cringe at the idea of extending copyright as we do today, as it creates monopolies and offers no public benefit. Consider the greatest inventor of all time, Benjamin Franklin, who never patented a thing he invented.

Almost 240 years ago, a good friend of Ben Franklin, Joseph Priestly, illustrates this point further. Primarily famous for figuring out that plants create "good air" therefore replacing the air animals consume, Priestly proved to be revolutionary in more fields than one - in particular, science, religion, and politics - and far more influential than he was given credit.

According to Steven Johnson, author of "The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America" Priestly is "the missing philosophical link between our founding fathers." Priestly greatly influenced the Founding Fathers including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who Priestley wrote to after his discovery of "good air" and with whom he had a collaborative and intellectual relationship.

"That the vegetable creation should restore the air which is spoiled by the animal part of it, looks like a rational system." -- Ben Franklin responding to Priestly
Years later, after Priestly accepted a job as a minister, he moved into a temporary residence adjacent to a brewery, to await the house he was supposed to move. While there, he noticed a haze coming off the brewing beer and upon further investigation, discovered carbonation, hence his discovery of soda water. He immediately published the recipe for his new invention without thought to profit, as Steve Johnson writes, "The idea of proprietary secrets, of withholding information for personal gain, was unimaginable in that group." Of course, years later, in 1783, Johann Schweppe patented the process, which continues to provide "personal gain" through today.

Ben Franklin said the following regarding the subject of open access after he invented the Franklin stove:
I wrote and published a pamphlet, entitled "An Account of the new-invented Pennsylvania Fireplaces; wherein their Construction and Manner of Operation is particularly explained; their Advantages above every other Method of warming Rooms demonstrated; and all Objections that have been raised against the Use of them answered and obviated," etc. This pamphlet had a good effect. Gov'r. Thomas was so pleas'd with the construction of this stove, as described in it, that he offered to give me a patent for the sole vending of them for a term of years; but I declin'd it from a principle which has ever weighed with me on such occasions, viz., That, as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously. -- Ben Franklin
The idea behind the Founding Father's thinking was that the free flow of ideas and information foster the growth of original thought, and as Ben Franklin said, attract the attention of genius who can improve upon and solve problems half understood.

Fast forward to the last Presidential campaign. Obama used open source software and McCain used proprietary software. With proprietary, society gets the soda water, and with open source or open access, society gets soda water and the recipe for the soda water. President-elect Obama's tech agenda seems to support the latter. His choice of Julius Genachowski to chair the FCC is at the very least, an improvement. So, even though the first stab at a Broadband Bill is disappointing, it appears that net neutrality, open source and a more level playing field just might have a chance.
"We can’t allow a system of gatekeepers to get built into the network. The Internet shouldn’t be harnessed for the profit of a few, rather than the good of the many; value should come from the quality of information, not the control of access to it." -- Damian Kulash Jr. lead singer of OK Go
Some Open Source links:

Open sustainability camp

Open source car

Open source comes to medical instruments.

Software industry vs. software society

Open Democracy - aims to build the open source model for news analysis and opinion


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