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Open Source beyond Software

February 17th, 2004 · No Comments

Prospect Magazine writes that “open source software has come of age, and open source working methods are spreading beyond computers.”

Yochai Benkler, a law professor at Yale University, has called this “commons-based peer production.” The commons refers to the sharing of the underlying code or the output that is open to all, akin to the public land that farmers once grazed their livestock upon. Peer production means that producers participate for their own varied reasons and in ad hoc ways, not necessarily via legal contract or management fiat. Benkler calls this a third mode of production for the market, distinct from the company and the “spot market” (or, in employment terms, the freelancer). Open source shows that it is possible for part of the economy to function without companies but with many self-employed individuals contracting with each other.

Benkler cites examples of areas in which commons-based peer production is superior. In one case, Nasa used volunteers to identify geological features on Mars. The project, called Clickworkers, allowed anyone to look at images of sections of the planet and identify features. Around 85,000 people took part, and nearly 2m images were checked. According to researchers, the result was “virtually indistinguishable from the inputs of a geologist with years of experience.”

Education is another fruitful area for open source. In 2001 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled OpenCourseWare, which publishes the syllabuses, lecture notes, reading lists and even student solutions to 500 different courses. While MIT retains copyright, it allows anyone to access the courses. The institution is clearly confident that the value it adds lies not in the written part of the courses but in the teaching and the environment, which students can get only by attending and paying fees. By contrast, Oxford limits access even to its exam papers to university members.

Academic journal publishing is another business targeted by open access. The market is a cartel, dominated by Reed Elsevier, Springer-Verlag and a few others. Many academic institutions complain of the high price of subscribing to these publishers’ journals. The open access movement aims to increase distribution of research through journals unhampered by restrictive licensing regimes and high subscription costs-indeed, it has been doing so for several years, and some of them have become essential sources for scientists.

Tags: Software

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