One small step for open source

A few dozen Linux programmers marched through downtown San Francisco on Thursday in support of proposed legislation that would require the California government to only use software in which the source code is freely available for viewing, modification and redistribution.

Led by Michael Tiemann, chief technology officer at Linux vendor Red Hat Inc., the group walked from Moscone Center to San Francisco City Hall to unveil a piece of legislation known as the Digital Software Security Act (DSSA).

The march seemed more like a walking tour of San Francisco for computer programmers than a political rally, as the small crowd traversed San Francisco sidewalks dodging tourists and the homeless, and making periodic stops to hear diatribes about the importance of maintaining freedom in software development.

Tiemann made stops at various landmarks, which he used to illustrate his views. An American flag waving above the Old Navy clothing store kicked off a speech on the beliefs of the framers of the U.S. constitution, beliefs Tiemann said could also apply to modern-day software development.

Other stops, including one in front of a cable car turnaround, mostly provided good photo opportunities for the media who tagged along.

Most of the marchers were employees of Red Hat, who share many of the same views as their technology boss. One employee, Tom Callaway, handed out bumper stickers that took jabs at Microsoft Corp. "Convicts should make license plates, not computer software," one sticker read, referring to Microsoft being ruled an illegal monopolist by the U.S. federal courts.

Another bumper sticker asked, "Would you buy a car with the hood welded shut?" Some open source programmers have drawn an analogy between that idea and proprietary software in which the code is closely guarded by a single vendor.

In addition to supporting the DSSA, Tiemann used the occasion to rail against other movements in the computing industry that he said could limit the rights of open source development. One focal point was Microsoft's concept of a hardware and software platform, called Palladium, that would reside inside a computer to control digital rights management.

"Microsoft's Palladium could have a chilling effect on the way computers are used," Tiemann said.

The disdain for technology initiatives and laws being backed by major IT vendors was shared by the faithful who followed Tiemann to City Hall.

"I don't know how much of an impact political rallies have on legislative decision-making, but just in case they do, I'm here to support it," said Ryan Newton, a computer engineering graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was in town for LinuxWorld. Despite the low turnout at the march, he said it was an important event for the open source community.

"It's important that we keep these very oppressive laws (such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, intended to crack down on copyright violations) from being passed," Newton said.

So far, Red Hat is the only corporate backer of the DSSA, which was drafted by San Diego attorney Walt Pennington. The open source advocate said in an interview earlier this week that he has also approached IBM Corp. to back the bill, as well as California legislators who could introduce it into debate.

San Diego assemblyman Juan Vargas has expressed interest in introducing some sort of legislation focusing on the use of open source software, though not likely as it is currently drafted, according to representatives from his office.

An IBM spokeswoman said earlier this week that the company would not support a law that would exclude any software from being acquired by the government. Although IBM is a major backer of Linux, the company also has a huge portfolio of proprietary software products that could be affected by any such law.

Open source alternatives do exist for most aspects of IT systems. The Linux operating system is one of the most well known, though there are also open source file servers, Web servers, database software and other key pieces of software infrastructure. However, not all of these are regarded as enterprise-ready software, according to some analysts.

"There's certainly work to be done," said marcher Newton. "What we don't want is to close off opportunities that could come from future open source innovation."

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