Green Software: The Green Party and Free Software

Over the past few years I have been trying to bring ideas to the Green Party about information ecology. This includes discussions surrounding laws often referenced under the (very politically motivated) phrase "Intellectual Property".

I started in 1998 to write my own introduction on this topic. I include this below. It is written both to discuss some ideals (for the "fundie" audience), as well as give some practical suggestions that can be put into place sooner (for the "realo" audience). If you only wish to read the practical solutions, please jump to the "What can I do" section.

It is my hope that some of the suggestions I have made on Information Technology (IT) procurement will be adopted in the short term by the Green Party. I also hope that some of the more complex questions of copyright and patent laws, and their interaction with other economic policy such as procurement (NAFTA chapter 10) and Competition policy (called anti-trust in the USA) will eventually become Green Party policy.

I also hope that other Greens will join the protest against the most offensive and/or visible attackers of the information ecology in their very related sub-industries such as Bayer, Monsanto, Microsoft and Disney.

The Green Party, as well as other activists, have tended to treat these issues and corporations are separate. They all exist because of and lobby government heavily to enact laws to further privatize and strip-mine the information ecology.

If you find this topic interesting, please consider joining the gpc-ip mailing list hosted by the Green Party of Canada. You must be a member of the GPC to join, and instructions on the Green Party of Canada email expander lists are on their site.

Green Software: The Green Party and Free Software

"Greens would like to decentralize global capitalism to human-scale, community-based free enterprise."

(Frank de Jong, leader, Green Party of Ontario).


Under the definition of sustainability agreed to by many Greens, we see something being defined as being sustainable if it "comes mainly from the qualities of being human (i.e. creativity, communication, coordination, appreciation, and spiritual and intellectual development.)".

What this definition does not take into consideration is when some aspect of these qualities are claimed to be owned, and where that ownership restricts the communication and/or third-party development of that information. This makes the quality more scarce.

This is the type of change that copyright and patent laws imposes on these qualities, making what would otherwise be an infinite resource into a more limited renewable resource. In this case the renewability depending on the time limits of the copyright/patent, as well as other factors involved with the proprietary information restriction (price/terms of license, etc).

This creates in non-physical concepts such as creativity and communication some of the same limitations as physical things such as energy, water and air. In some cases, especially in majority world countries, we see the sell-off of natural resources in order to pay for technology transfer, as well as the use of more polluting technology due to the high-costs associated with the knowledge transfer of more efficient technologies.

As with other renewable resources, Greens advocate a move from the use of scarce resources, even when the resources are renewable, to fully sustainable activities. Movements which help to remove the restrictions added to human qualities should then be seen as in support of these green goals.

Within computer software a movement called the Free Software movement is trying to do that. At it's most basic terms, being Free Software means that the basic blueprints, called the source code, for a piece of software are made available without proprietary restrictions so that others can freely read, redistribute, and modify it. In this way, no single entity is restricting the flow of this information, keeping this "quality of being human" unrestricted.

Question & Answer

Would the use of unrestricted published information, especially the use and maintenance of Free Software, remove an advantage the Green Party would have over other parties? Why would we want to have our work able to be used by other parties?

There are two ways to answer this question:

  1. Many Greens consider themselves to be working for the general public, and not exclusively for the Green Party. In every election there are Green candidates that run for election not with the goal of winning a seat, but trying to change the hearts and minds of the electorate and other candidates. If a member of another party uses an idea of ours we consider this a good thing, especially if they give us credit for it.

    Thinking of other parties as "the enemy" is a very adversarial model. Many Greens believe the electorate is getting tired of this way of thinking and instead want government that will try to work with people of all types and affiliated with all political parties to try to move forward. Each other political party shares some policies and ideas with Green Parties, and it is just sensible for us to work with them in any and all areas we share.

    There are also many people who believe that information researched/developed by the public sector, paid for by government taxation, should be made available royalty free to those who already paid for it. The simplest and least expensive way to do that is to license this information in a way that does not restrict its flow, such as those offered for software by the various Free Software licenses. As a party in waiting, we should start to act now as if we were the government, having the information we research/develop for our constituencies be freely distributeable.

  2. We need to be realistic and recognize that Green Party members are currently not in the majority. As with most intellectual development, one uses more information authored by others than one uses of ideas authored by themselves. The more actively we encourage other people and parties to share their information freely, the better everyone will be, including our own party.

I have heard about the GNU General Public License (GPL), the BSD license, and a number of other licenses. Which one would be best to recommend for software developed for or by the Green Party?

To answer this question it is best to first discuss some details of copyright law, and second to discuss what one is trying to accomplish with the use of a license.

In my presentation to the 2001 copyright reform process I included a section on The Three Rights. A summary was used in the slides for my Feb 22, 2002 as follows:

  1. Moral Rights
    Author of a work has the right to the integrity of the work and to be associated with the work as its author.
  2. Mass-copying rights
    An economic right to royalties on the mass copying of a work.
    Copyright was intended as a regulation by authors on publishers, limiting their ability to mass-copy materials without the author receiving any benefit.
  3. Access rights
    A a new regulation being proposed by publishers to limit the ability of individuals to read materials.

While there is a wide variety of software licenses, I will highlight only 4 examples from broad categories.

Public Domain
The author of the information does not retain any rights in any way. The recipient of the information can do anything they want with the information, and thus this is considered the least restrictive way to release information.
The BSD license (The ModifiedBSD license)
This license has a few restrictions above releasing in the public domain, all relating to "Moral Rights". The general effect of this license is to preserve Moral Rights for the author, but release any other rights.
The GNU General Public License
This license adds restrictions above the BSD license. Moral rights are retained, but specific other rights are retained as well. The most commonly discussed features are the fact that binary distribution must be accompanied by a promise to offer source code to anyone who asks, and that any derivative work must carry the same license. The ability to create a proprietary derivative and distribute it is very specifically prohibited.
an average proprietary license
This form of license is the most restrictive, with authors often releasing very few monopoly rights. Source code is not often offered and if it is it is most often under non-disclosure or with very specific restrictions on its use or redistribution. Binaries cannot be used without paying for a license agreement, and these license agreements can restrict the users rights in many different ways.

For my own work I use the GNU General Public License. The restrictions against derivative works being made proprietary is a restriction I support.

In general, I do not believe in rights without responsibilities. In this case, the right to use my software comes with the responsibility of adding any published derivative works to the information commons.

This is both a practical and a political goal. It is practical in that the more software is released with the GPL or other Free Software licenses, the more software I will have access to in providing solutions to my clients. It is political in that I believe in protecting and enhancing the information commons, and am willing to use any tool at my disposal to encourage this.

It is my belief that the Green Party would have similar goals to my own. While the party may not outright reject software licensed with a proprietary license as I have in my business, it should still encourage software licenses which enhance the information commons.

I am a member of a provincial party and the federal party in Canada. I agree with the issues presented here. What can I do to help?

While copyright and patent policy are themselves federal issues, any level of government (or party) can enact procurement policies to help encourage Open Source/Free Software. As a miminum they can enact procurement policies which do not remove Free Software as a platform choice for their constituants and/or members.

The federal government, under international trade law (NAFTA) and internal trade rules (AIT, Agreement on Internal Trade), already has procurement policies which require open standards. This aspect of these agreements are not currently enforced very well.

In 2001 I was involved in a court case with a client who was suing the Library of Parliament. The Library was requiring Microsoft-based solutions in a procurement for services which had no reason for that requirement. While this case is very specific to the Library, in general it should be noted that NAFTA Chapter 10 is already more progressive than the procurement policy utilized by the various political parties, including the Green Party which currently has no policy at all.

The following are some suggestions for internal party policies:

  • Any tools purchased for use by the party should have import/export options which are of a vendor-independant file format.
  • When publishing a file on a website, archiving a file for future retrieval, or sending a file to a group of people where an alternative format had not been previously negotiated, an open vendor-independant file format will be used.
  • The party should never mandate or recommend the use of a specific vendor-dependant tool, and should encourage diversity in tools between team members, as well as constituency/riding associations.
  • As a minimum, the procurement policy outlined in NAFTA Chapter 10 should be used as it relates to open technical standards. This specifically includes Article 1007: Technical Specifications:

    Article 1007: Technical Specifications

    1. Each Party shall ensure that its entities do not prepare, adopt or apply any technical specification with the purpose or the effect of creating unnecessary obstacles to trade.

    2. Each Party shall ensure that any technical specification prescribed by its entities is, where appropriate:

    (a) specified in terms of performance criteria rather than design or descriptive characteristics; and

    (b) based on international standards, national technical regulations, recognized national standards, or building codes.

    3. Each Party shall ensure that the technical specifications prescribed by its entities do not require or refer to a particular trademark or name, patent, design or type, specific origin or producer or supplier unless there is no sufficiently precise or intelligible way of otherwise describing the procurement requirements and provided that, in such cases, words such as "or equivalent" are included in the tender documentation.

    4. Each Party shall ensure that its entities do not seek or accept, in a manner that would have the effect of precluding competition, advice that may be used in the preparation or adoption of any technical specification for a specific procurement from a person that may have a commercial interest in that procurement.

Switching to Free Software from an existing system is hard. All my friends use Windows/Macintosh computers and Microsoft Word. It seems that only the 'Geeks' currently use software such as Linux. Given most computer users really don't understand what is under the hood, is it not elitist to suggest everyone switch to Free Software?

Let's be honest with ourselves. Pretty much every Green Party policy suggests some change to how our society is currently running, or encourages one path over the other. The explanations as to why one path is better than the other is often extremely complex.

  1. We suggest to non-physics majors that we should not be using nuclear power. We encourage solar, geo-thermal, wind or simple conservation as alternatives. The vast majority of people just turn their light switch on and have no clue what electricity is, or where it comes from.
  2. We ask people to get out of their private automobiles, and most people (including many greens) do not understand economies-of-scale, climate change, taxation/externalities (who pays for the car), risk-assessments or other comparisons between transportation modes.
  3. We ask people to be vegetarian/vegan for "environmental reasons", while the average person tries to forget that their meat came from an animal that grazed in some amount of land. Talking about farming-efficiency and comparing different types of foods is well beyond most people.

Greens are often some of the most technologically and scientifically literate people. You have to be, in order to discuss the complex social and technological issues that form our policy and platform. I truly believe that discussing Free Software and open communications (open file formats, open protocols) in the context of information as an economic commodity, government granted temporary monopolies (IE: copyright, patents, trademarks), biopiracy, intellectual slavery/dependencies or other such issues is very appropriate.

While you may not switch to Free Software yourself, you can still help others to make the change, or at least help create an environment that allows for freedom of choice.

Proprietary vendors attempt to create new dependencies by storing files (such as wordprocessor documents) in formats only available to customers of their product. They may require a license for the use of the file format itself. If you send files in these formats to other people, you are essentially encouraging them to buy the same software and end up with the same dependencies.

On the other hand, most office packages have 'save as' options to save documents in standard vendor-independant formats. When you use these features, it allows other people to make their own choices as to what software to use.

As an example, if you use Microsoft Word as your word-processor, saving as a .DOC file is the worst format to use. It is also the default. Other formats are easier with plain-text (.TXT) files the most universal, HTML next, Rich Text Format (RTF) next and so on. It is very easy to use the 'save-as' option, and to ask around to find out what formats are best for any given type of information.

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