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  • Boundary Issues

last modified September 23, 2010 by strypey

Paper for FreeCulture2010

Boundary Issues

"When I was an alien/ Cultures weren't opinions" - Nirvana, 'Territorial Pissings' 

As the internet and related technologies are becoming increasingly embedded our everyday lives, will they be configured to serve the common good, or corporate profit? This will be determined, in many ways, by the outcome of the battle between those who call copying sharing, and those who call it stealing. Protection of "intellectual property" is being used as an excuse for all manner of enforcement tools, such as denying people an internet connection if they are accused of file-sharing copyright material, which is in leaked drafts of The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement [1].

Regulations also limits what kinds of software can be written. In some countries, including the US, patenting laws have been bent to treat software as an invention, allowing the patenting of programming ideas on top of the existing copyright protection of source code. Companies can then charge royalties from other programmers implementing a similar idea even if they write new code from scratch [2].

If this had been allowed in the early days of the personal computer Microsoft might have used the threat of legal action to get license fees out of anyone who developed software with a graphical user interface - even though they originally copied the idea from the Macintosh, adding Windows to DOS under a licensing deal with Apple. Ironically Microsoft was taken to court by Apple, who were pushing for recognition of their ownership of the implementation of 'windows'. Apple lost [3]. In 2003, SCO Group undertook a more ambitious lawsuit, suing IBM, and Novell over their support for the Linux kernel. They also threatened hundreds of corporations with law suits if they used operating systems including the Linux kernel, without a license for SCO's proprietary version of UNIX. In 2007, Novell was found to actually own the Unix in question, and with no legitimate business income to keep them afloat, SCO declared bankruptcy [4].

Both of these cases were taken under copyright law, but in 2004 Microsoft launched a similar strategy against the free software community, this time using patent law. They claim GNU/ Linux violates 235 of their patents, although they won't reveal which ones, preventing their validity as patents from being challenged. While the GNU GPL (General Public Licence) prevents distributors of GNU/ Linux from paying patent licenses, Microsoft's patent lawyer started approaching corporate end users with their hand out [5].

The justification that copyright serves the public good, and patents supports innovation, are hard to swallow in face of the parasitic way SCO and Microsoft have used their freedom to own. This staking of ownership claims extends beyond software, and into genomes, with similar implications for freedom. This Biotechnology corporations who have genetically modified food crops to be resistant to pesticide chemicals (Monsanto 'RoundUp-Ready' soy beans), or to secrete pesticide (Aventis 'Starlink Corn'), claim these 'innovations' deserve patent protection. In many countries, notably the USA, they have been granted.

The idea of patenting plants is abhorrent to many social justice campaigners who have warned that life patents threaten the ability of ordinary people to freely grow plants for their own needs. Commenting on a Patent Ordinance being introduced by the government of India in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, scientist and food sovereignty campaigner Vandana Shiva said "it threatens to tear down the entire fabric of food security and health security we had built carefully and democratically since independence, by creating patent monopolies for seeds and medicines" [6].

As an example, when RoundUp Ready genes found their way into his Canola crop, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser was sued by Monsanto. They demanded a $15/acre license fee for the use of their technology, even though Schmeizer doesn't use RoundUp, and would gain no advantage even if he had "pirated" the seed. Says Schmeiser, "It was a very frightening thing, because [Monsanto] said it does not matter how it gets into a farmer's field; it's their property" [7]. Eventually Monsanto settled out of court, but as with the SCO/ Microsoft strategy, it's clear their goal is to create a respectable cover for highway robbery; making end users pay again for things they have legitimately obtained.

Another well publicized Monstanto biotechnology program was the Terminator Seeds, a technology now known by the euphemism Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURT). Their aim was to use genetic modification techniques to protect their patented genes, by producing infertile food plants [8].

Like the breeding of sterile hybrids, this would have the effect of forcing farmers, community growers, and home gardeners to buy seeds every season if they want to grow food. However, hybrid plants often still produce seed, even if plants grown from them do not always have the same carefully selected characteristics as the parent plant. Growers can still save seed and many organics enthusiasts carry out their own experimental breeding programs. The risks is that these Terminator genes would spread through wind-blown pollen, insects, or horizontal gene-transfer. This could prevent seed sovereignty, and worse, attack the natural ability of wild plants to copy themselves, all for the sake of protecting Monsanto's freedom to own.

Analagous to this, the greatest threat against the viability of free software lies in the changes occurring in the design of computing equipment. Traditionally the open architecture standards of the PC platform allows any company to produce pieces of equipment for with PCs. It was this openness that drove the widespread adoption of PCs by office and home users over competitors like Apple, giving Windows its current dominance, but ironically it was this same openness which allowed GNU/ Linux and other free code operating systems to start competing, first on servers, then on the desktop.

As the PC has become more of an internet terminal and as more people access the internet through portable devices including Palmtops and mobile phones, content industry associations like the RIAA and the MPAA are pressuring hardware manufacturers to cripple their hardware to prevent copying of media, a practice they call DRM ("Digital Rights Management"). The FSF have termed this practice 'Defective by Design', as it limits customers' freedom to use the hardware they have paid for to run free software [9].

The Trusted Computer Group standard (sometimes known by the Microsoft codename Palladium) is an example which "...provides a computing platform on which you can't tamper with the application software, and where these applications can communicate securely with their authors and with each other." according to Ross Anderson, a Professor of Computer Security at Cambridge University [10]. This type of system is now being referred to by the euphimism 'Technological Protection Mechanisms', and the draft of ACTA proposes criminal sanctions against programmers whose software circumvents them.

It is these questions of freedom which are crucial to understanding neo-Luddism. It is not technology they oppose, but the use of technology to deny freedom. Keeping in mind that law is a technology, like Stallman, they reject the imposition of property laws that are incompatible with the human freedom to create, to express, to share, and to help a neighbour.

The debate between proponents and opponents of "intellectual property" can thus be stated: which freedom is more important for the future of humanity; to be free to know, or free to own? Proceeding from this is another question, applying to geological and biological natural resources which cannot be created by human labour. Is state enforcement of monopolies over soil, water, or minerals, as "property", any more sacrosanct than in the case of more intangible resources like physically possible methods (patents), sequences of the words of a natural language (copyright), or strings of the natural numbers of mathematics (proprietary software)?

Especially in the case of land ownership, which like the various monopolies aggregated under "intellectual property", amounts to a bundle of state-enforced rights of exclusion and control [11], one might paraphrase the first question and ask: free to grow, or free to own? However, as the ability to grow is increasingly tied to the fruits of intellectual labour, in the form of gardening and farming knowledge, and in the packets of DNA we call seeds, 'free to grow' becomes increasingly indistinguishable from 'free to know'.

Arguably, the transition to a combination of slow, community-scale economies, and a free, global infostructure, offers the best chance of not only surviving the coming ecological changes, but adapting and thriving. For this transition to work, the freedom to know is going to have to take precedence over the freedom to own, and the state-granted monopoly of "intellectual property" is going to have to take a back seat to "intellectual freedom". It may even be that the freedom to grow have to take precedence over other forms of exclusive property, in land and other natural resources. Fortunately, this transition is well underway around the world, and there are numerous opportunities for geeks and greens to work together to define wicked problems, and create new possibilities for humanity.

For example, like Stallman's subversion of copyright in the GPL, there are people are creatively reinterpreting property to make it once again serve human freedom, by planting fruit and nut trees in public spaces. Free Food New Zealand's initiatives on the ground are supported by online propogation advice, and fruit tree mapping projects, using Google Maps [12]. Free culture advocates could help by migrating these maps to a system using Open Street Map data, and building on the OSM mapping features to make them more conducive to food mapping.

The permaculture movement was founded on the training of designers, and the sharing of teaching materials is already common practice. Developing course materials online, under a libre license, would be highly beneficial to both trainers and learners of permaculture design. One thing free culture advocates could offer is a concerted effort to teach more permaculture trainers how to use wiki, and introduce them to collaboration sites like WikiVersity, and WikiEducator, who already host materials from a short permaculture course at Otago Polytech. [13]