This week’s protests by many online sites including Wikipedia, Google, Reddit and others reflect the deep concerns of many Internet properties over two bills pending in the US Congress – the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) in the House, and the “PROTECT IP Act” (PIPA) in the Senate. Both bills are intended to prevent foreign-based websites from pirating copyright protected intellectual property (IP), primarily movies and music. The protest focused on the potential unintended collateral damage to Internet freedom and inadvertent stifling of the innovation that is driven by online global collaboration.
Here at Black Duck, our business operates at this balance point, at least where free and open source software (FOSS) is concerned – and we think the FOSS community and ecosystem represent a compelling model for the US Congress to study regarding how to strike this balance. Developers around the world today are able to enhance their innovation by expanding their use of FOSS, and FOSS licensing and communities help ensure that FOSS content creators’ IP rights are respected. The model is all about enabling the use of content (open source code or otherwise) while simultaneously respecting the content creators’ IP rights, and it works well.
Open source projects aggregate contributions of code from (online) collaborators, then make that code available for free to the broader global development community. But while the code is free, FOSS comes with a license and associated obligations. The authors of this IP make their content available subject these obligations, which vary depending on the wishes of the authors. Some use GPL-style licenses which ensure that subsequent derivative works will remain free and build upon each works’ innovations; others use Apache- or BSD style licenses that allow for derivative works that only require proper attribution. In fact there are over 2000 different FOSS license variants…some going as far as requiring users creating derivative works to buy the author a beer when in the same locale…
Regardless of the license chosen, all users of the code are required to comply with the obligations associated with the license and copyright. This simple approach has fueled a wave of collaborative innovation over the past several years that is truly unprecedented. And when users don’t comply, the FOSS community and legal ecosystem get engaged to prompt compliance. The system is very efficient, and most users see that the model works and strive to be compliant.
It is from this perspective that I view the SOPA/PIPA debate, and from this perspective that I strongly support a reasoned compromise – consciously seeking to strike the type of balance we see in the FOSS world. If legislation is the mechanism, it should protect IP rights with great care to avoid censoring of content, inhibiting free speech or open collaboration, or the sharing of ideas online. And the burden of proof should be high.
No question; this is a very difficult balance to achieve. I believe the open source community has done it, but unfortunately SOPA and PIPA in their current form cast far too wide a net – though this could be addressed. With an informed and open dialog continuing on the topic, I am hopeful that a balanced compromise can be reached.