Report on visit to a high-school as a guest speaker

Tuesday (March 26) I went to a high-school computer class to discuss Open Source software, and some of the current battles surrounding copyright and patents. This was the second semester that I visited this school, offering a new group of students a different perspective on some of the issues that will shape their future careers in computing.

The students watched the movie, "Anti-Trust" which features Open Source programmers as the heroes against a villain who is willing to murder to keep his proprietary software company on-top.

A handout with specific questions was given to the students to think about the issues brought out in the movie.

Visit the site:

Later this semester, Russell McOrmond, a consultant who supports open source code, will be visiting us to lead a discussion on this issue. Please read the following questions and jot down a few points from the movie so you can participate in this discussion.

This opening sequence defines the essence of the movie:
This business is a living organism
Multiplying constantly, Surrounded by predators.
There is no room for idle time or second guessing
New discoveries are made hourly
New ideas are ready to be devoured and redefined.
This business is binary; you are a one or a zero.
Alive or Dead!

There is no second place....
  1. What major changes in computer systems have led to the rise in the Open Source movement?
  2. If software should be modular, and each module should have a well defined external interface to inter-operate well with modules written by other authors, why isn't software intended to be shared among companies?
  3. Should computing business models be binary - alive or dead, winner take all? How does this conflict with the modernization of hardware (the movement from centralized mainframes to distributed computing)? Does this serve the customers who are themselves quite diverse?
  4. Does "one size fits all" really apply to computing? Should people conform to computers, or should computers conform to people?
  5. In a distributed market where everyone was working open-source, what ability would there be for someone to "steal" someone's idea and "make a billion dollars off of it"? How can people make fortunes off of someone else's generosity in a market that did not allow people to make money off of others' work rather than only making money off of their own work?
  6. "When you are on top, people attack the quality of your product". Is this really the basis of the complaints against some of the largest players in the industry? Are consumers truly given free choice amongst fairly competing and interoperable products where the best product for that consumer is what is purchased?
  7. Are developers given that same freedom to develop software for any platform they wish?
  8. "Human knowledge belongs to the world." Does Shakespeare belong to the world? What would have happened if the descendants of Shakespeare were allowed to control distribution of that work as current descendants of authors (or organizations hiring authors) can?
  9. "What are we doing here? Are we making chemical weapons? Kiddie porn? Strip-mining?" What other issues of knowledge ownership are being discussed in the current mainstream media? Is there legitimate health questions in relation to these issues of monopolization of human knowledge? Can we as a society really ignore these issues as much as the industries would like us to?
    Hint: See file Ottawa Citizen NEWS STORY on the DCCOA Student area
  10. "That's our problem. We don't take anything seriously that is not on a hard drive" Do you believe it is our responsibility as people who understand these technologies to "take things seriously" and to ensure that the average citizen, not just an elite, get the advantages of these technologies?

I introduced myself in the context of the last question. I said that I am one of those programmers that does try to take things seriously, especially where politics and economics are concerned. I suggested that while Open Source programmers are not under attack using baseball bats, there is a considerable threat coming through changes to laws made by governments and interpretations of these laws in count rooms.

I suggested that one law being proposed in the US government could go as far as to make Open Source or even user programmable computers illegal (See notes on CBDTA)

I also mentioned the irony about the movie Anti-Trust. It is currently illegal in the USA, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, to watch that movie with an Open Source DVD player. It is even illegal in the USA to provide links to sites which contain this program. I specifically purchased this movie in DVD format and played it on my Linux computer in order to make a submission to the government that discusses this problem.

I made use of the first few slides that I used on the Feb 22 professional development day.

Slide 1 - Introduction
This was just up on the screen as the students came in.
Slide 2 -
I explained that my business is one that makes money through Open Source software. I explained that there are at least 3 broad categories of ways make money in software, only one of which (Selling Licenses) required restrictions on the ability of end users to copy the software. I explained that I made my money in the "Servicing Software" category.
Slide 3 - A New economy, or a new product for the old economy.
I discussed some of the assumptions that get made when people think of ideas as property, and that most of the business models that get discussed are the same as those from the Industrial era. For a real "new economy" we need to move to a new way of thinking. I reminded people of the age of this discussion with the Thomas Jefferson quote from 1813 and that even one of the founders of the US Constitution agreed with my perspective that Ideas should not be thought of as property.
Slide 4 - The Three Rights
I believe this is one of the keys to copyright to make sense of the Open Source movement. We do not advocate the abolishing of copyright (IE: all information would be in the public domain). What we are advocating is protection for "Moral Rights", while reducing the reliance on "mass copying rights" for funding. The current nature of the battle is to try to get rid of the right to "private copying" and other "fair use rights", and to give further control to the publishers through a new "access right".
Slide 5 - Battling the old industry.
I left this slide in the background and started the informal discussion.
We would make use of the questions handed to them and encourage the students to ask and answer questions. I would try to keep the conversation going by offering my own answers to some of the questions, and often by asking further questions myself to get the students to think about some of their own assumptions.

While I do not believe there were any students very familiar with Open Source software before this class, I found them to be very well informed on the issues in general. Some key ideas:

What about copying software, such as Microsoft operating systems, which are not supposed to be copied?
Another student answered this question, suggesting something I also believe. When home users copy Microsoft products for their home use, they are actually helping Microsoft with advertising. The more people that use Microsoft at home, the more likely they are to insist on it in the workplace where full copies will be purchased.

I have been arguing this for a long time: "Private Copying" is not piracy, it is advertising.

What about the tax on CD's?
When discussing music sharing on the Internet, a student brought up the tax (Private Copying Tariff) on blank CD's that pay for this music.

The confusions surrounding individuals copying for their own use (private copying) and copyright was then made obvious: Is private copying advertising for the artist, paid for and thus legal, or illegal?

I clarified that the current private copying tariff only applied to audio recordings and the recording industry, and thus did not apply to any other materials from Movies to Software that could be put onto the same blank CD's.

Should the choice of whether software is proprietary or Open Source be one available to any programmer?
This question let me know that I was not clear on some of my explanations. While I personally have no interest in participating in the proprietary software industry, or using their products, I believe that this should be a choice for the programmer. This is especially true during our transition from an Industrial economy to something potentially new.

What I am suggesting is that things should be a choice of the programmer to be Open Source as well. This specifically means that we should not enact laws that would encourage or force software to become proprietary.

I gave the example of the European Union and their "right to compatibility" (See conflicts with other Public Policy from my submission) which says that interfaces (API's, file formats, communications protocols) are not eligible for copyright. This ensures that Open Source programmers have the right to research and even reverse-engineer interfaces in order to create compatible products.

On the other hand, the USA's Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) claims that circumventing technological measures that are claimed to relate to copying is itself a violation of the act, which makes interfaces very specifically protected. This is one of the main reasons why the Open Source community has been very strongly opposing the DMCA, and any similar laws which may get enacted in Canada or elsewhere.

The Open Source community relies on a right to compatibility to survive. This compatibility cannot be enabled by licensing proprietary interfaces. Given that Open Source software, by its nature, publishes the source code, it cannot be based on proprietary or otherwise private information.

How do you make money if people are allowed to copy your software?
This is the most frequently asked question, and is one I expect to be answering. I always offer myself as an example of someone who makes his money servicing software. I suggest that there are many more ways to make money without ideas being restricted than otherwise.

After the discussion with this class I attended the first meeting of a new Linux user group that is forming in that school.