Friday, February 29, 2008

a hopelessly didactic reflection on the trade that pays my bills

Because it reflects a dichotomy of our own minds and the seeming tussle between two outlooks that uncomfortably co-lodge with differing emphasis within each of us, this issue of intellectual property will never go away. Besides, why should /. readers be the only ones to waste time on such matters ;?)

To help you explore the dynamic of the deeper conflict, consider how patents and proprietary ideas have analogies in biology.

First a word of justification for arguments of this type: Biology works, we know, because we know there is life. And most of us know it is, when all its forms are taken in to account, at least two billion years old on this planet. And don't forget that DNA was the first coding scheme and not until the invention of language did humans begin transmitting adaptations as extra-genetic information. If you can make the idea-mapping of the analogy hold up, certainly biology is one of the most robust schemes from which to draw conclusions about what works in the long run.

Analogy 1: trading a reduced cost of being well adapted for the short term luxury and illusory comfort of having an exclusive brand name advantage.

Bacteria can and do swap genetic tricks quite promiscuously. That is why they are seldom more than a few weeks behind the most potent vaccines and antibiotics our laboratories can cook up. But no one bacteria benefits and the borrow-and-blend helter-skelter genetics going on in the sewers, the gutters and drug addicts blood streams allows no identity or family to emerge for more than a moment: all the triumphs of the microbes are entirely and universally collective. They are the Borg on this planet. Humans slowly trade and spread genes unless purged by plagues but in the grip of the conservative inclination, they actively repel genetic and extra-genetic learnings from outside their culturally enforced and narrowed gene pools.

Ego and altruism, whether entangled or discrete, will only carry you so far. The appeal made in favor of "open source" software is that it promotes the bacterial model of rapid incorporation and hybridization of new ideas: it accelerates innovation. But cui bono?
The dollars paid are a feedback connecting the closed-source software designer/developer to the user, a link that is missing in the open source model. The rock stars of open source like Richard Stallman or Linus Torvalds are sustained in their roles by having powerful thought leadership but a minimum of income compared to similar talent at a most high technology companies. They are exceptions. Most of the hoards of developers who have chipped in a bug fix, a new UI widget or a better sort utility to the existing body of open source did so in their spare time or to enhance their resume and have moved on to paid work. For a human to work consistently he or she must work happily. For a human to work happily in the service of generalized but personally absent mankind requires that worker to possess an empathetic imagination that replaces the exchange of wage or the reward of face to face gratitude and prizes the fleeting appreciation from contributing colleagues...and some other means of paying for the groceries. The nearest thing to steady income in open source software work comes from providing help, training and customization services to users who got the software for free but don't know how to make it work.

It can be argued [ I know it to be a working motive in MY life] that innovation is also suppressed by the threat of open source: "why would I expend MY time and money to solve a problem when I will not be rewarded for the solution?" Unless you work for a wealthy company, you will not have the resources to combat piracy of your ideas. But the solution to that problem cannot be separated from the cause: the profit motive that moves pirates rests entirely on the MSRP of the stolen software or components. If you give something away, the pirates have nothing and must look elsewhere. Money of course is only part of propietorship. If your ego needs lead you to strive for algorithms that must be treated like signed originals, perhaps you should take up art or write novels or run an academic CS lab that publishes research. That is a position no bacteria ever considers. It is our burden: writing software requires a lot of brain power but selfishness too requires a modicum of brainpower before the me/them boundry is discerned and enforced. The proprietary model of software patents is, in its psychological essences, the conservative's approach: "why should I give away an advantage? It gives me a distinguishing aid or ability others have not earned".

Well, yes it does and no it doesn't because the closed source model implies the proprietor of a set of ideas must either buy other people's ideas to compliment and complete his own capabilities or duplicate the entire development effort that the ensemble of all sundry successful inventors have produced in the given problem domain in order to match their effects with his private batch of techniques. That implied "go it alone or have the money to buy what you cannot invent" scheme is a staggering barrier. Personal or corporate gain are esteemed as unfailing motivators in neocon circles and the business schools and pulpits of capitalist enconomies but they too can not carry you over every hurdle. The dreadful failure rates for high technology start-ups ought to convince you of that.

Analogy 2: Diversity or monoculture:

There is another analogy which biology can supply for our understanding of the limitations of proprietary ways. The recent book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver gives a very clear picture of just how limited our choice of food species have become due to the needs of mass production and corporate economic benefit. The problem with that [ assuming YOU aren't one of the species that has been terminated for want of profitability,] is that one bug can come along and starve the lot of us like potato blight did in Ireland 160 years ago. Everybody running Microsoft Outlook means that if some bright, or careless, hacker finds, for instance, a buffer overflow bug in the message handling machinery of that product then everybody is vulnerable to an exploit of that bug. Open source projects could be faulted for giving us too many choices. claims to have registered 170,861 projects as I type this. You get one look-and-feel engine from Microsoft. You get one from Apple. You have several choices including "roll your own with one of these API toolkits" if you run Linux. What you won't get is a single mode of failure that could fell an entire class of applications...a virtue that your MicroSoft salesman will describe as "chaos". What you do get is the option to look under the hood to see exactly what you are running. Bruce Schneier, in his truly excellent tome Applied Cryptography, persuasively argues that only open and published schemes of protecting data come in for the necessary criticism and scrutiny that really insure security. When you decide "I won't let others use my ideas!" you both cut off the vast free inspection and you put yourself under some level of obligation [such as GPL] to NOT use the public ideas of others. If you go that way, you had better be damn good or have a set of customers who have no other choice [such are usually referred to as your employers!]. The decision to possess an exclusive solution means you have one solution and it had better be right. But neither life nor software requirements and markets let any specific solution remain "right" for long.

Did you figure out where I stand on the issue of trying to own an idea that can be appropriated, used or transmitted for free? The biological analog of the proprietary is the creature so dangerous, ugly and unapproachable that only its own kind are adapted to mate with it. It had better have no enemies because rapid adaptation is not in the cards...think porcupines, perhaps or anklyosaur and triceratops or the Bush/Walker clan.

Personally, I don't feel entirely at home on either side of that fence.

[There is a 3rd alternative...the google way: owning the ONE copy of the working system and letting everyone execute for no cost but a loss of privacy and only ownership of the invisible code via holding shares of GOOG. Software-as-service is a model that will get more complicated with the introduction of Adobe AIR technology.]


Anonymous said...
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GreenSmile said...

anon...use a western character set so we can see how long your spam is!