Troublesome horizon

Recently, two major initiatives on the horizon have troubled many open-source users and creators, especially in the United States.

The first item of concern for much of the open-source community is the proposal by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to explore the use of royalty patents on Web standards. The proposed use of these RAND (Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory) patents may provide some protection for the standards, but they will have at least one serious side effect: They will make open-source implementations of these standards impossible.

Why? The very definition of open-source software licensing states "the license may not require a royalty or other fee" to use the software. The very existence of these RAND royalty payments will directly discriminate against open-source software.

Why does this matter? Simple: Open source powers a significant portion of the Web. According to the September 2001 Netcraft survey, approximately 60 percent of the Web -- more than 19 million servers -- are powered by the open-source Apache Web server. About 30 percent of all computers hosting Web sites run the Linux operating system, another key open-source offering. Any change that threatens the stability of so much of the Web better have a tremendous upside. So far, I have yet to hear of anything quite so momentous.

The second matter causing grief to many is the United States' proposed SSSCA (Security Systems Standards and Certification Act). On the surface, this bill appears to simply guard the rights of copyright holders by denying pirates the ability to make illegal copies of electronic information. Unfortunately, it is much more than that.

The SSSCA will insist that all digital devices -- computers, handhelds, and more -- be equipped with federally specified "digital rights management" technology. This technology will enable data providers to decide how you may use the CDs, DVDs, and other media you purchase.

But most critical to the open-source community is the demand that all devices must use this technology. That means that open-source systems must also implement this feature or become illegal in the United States. Yes, in the land of the free, free software may be forbidden.

But why not just implement the controls under open source? How? Even if the government were to publish the code to do so, with open-source software someone could always edit the operating system source code so it does not call the controlling routines. This will obviously be illegal under the provisions of the new law.

So when you hear about open-source people objecting to the proposed W3C rules or ranting about the SSSCA legislation, do not assume they are merely leftist nutcases trying to subvert the rights of copyright owners. They are not. They are, however, fighting against proposals that may damage the structure of the Internet by crippling or destroying open-source software use.

It is one thing to protect the rights of copyright owners, but it is something else to make freedom illegal while doing so. There must be a better way.

Russell Pavlicek is an independent open-source consultant and author of Embracing Insanity: Open Source Software Development. Contact him at

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