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Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel, was announced last week as the joint winner of the Millennium Technology Prize. The award, which he shared with stem cell research pioneer Shinya Yamanaka, is presented biennially by Technology Academy Finland “to promote technological research and innovations that have a positive impact on the quality of life, alleviate fears towards technological change and encourage discussion between technology specialists and societal decision makers”.
In an interview with the BBC after receiving the award, Torvalds was asked why he thought the open source movement had grown despite there being no guarantee of financial reward for developers. This is what he said:
I actually think the real idea of open source is for it to allow everybody to be "selfish", not about trying to get everybody to contribute to some common good… The fundamental property of the GPLv2 [General Public Licence] is a very simple "tit-for-tat" model: I'll give you my improvements, if you promise to give your improvements back. It's a fundamentally fair licence, and you don't have to worry about somebody else then coming along and taking advantage of your work.
If this reflects the way that open source developers feel about the licence that forms the basis of their movement, then it is no wonder that many of them have such mistrust for IP in general.
Tit-for-tat, selfishness, and disregard for the common good sound very similar to some of the language commonly used by IP sceptics – including many members of the open source movement – to describe the actions of what they perceive to be trolls and bullies. Yet they often appear to forget that IP is what made open source possible in the first place. Without the provisions of the GPL, developers would not have been able to ensure that works derived from their ideas would be subject to the same open source principles.
If Linux and open source is ultimately about self-interest, then it would sit uneasy with the fact that Torvalds has just been awarded a prize “established to steer the course of technological development to a more humane direction”. As he correctly points out, the GPL encourages cooperation by protecting an inventor’s ideas from being appropriated by someone else. But expressed more emphatically than that, the GPL – and IP in general – comes with a host of benefits. Far from being about selfishness, IP facilitates collaboration, open innovation and – based on strong IP rights – can allow inventors to contribute to a common good without getting their ideas stolen from them. It is for those reasons that open source has been adopted in the mainstream of the high-tech industry.
Torvalds may be an open source trailblazer, but he tends to not be the most fluent or erudite speaker on IP issues. If the open source community heard more about the positives that IP can bring them, industry and society at large, then they would have less reason to be sceptical.
Licensing, IP politics, Copyright, Patents