Brazil Goes Open Source, the Wikimedia Commons Soars

Here are two encouraging dispatches about the future of online commons – and one distressing bummer.

First, the good news. Brazilian government agencies and the state-run oil company, postal service and national statistic agency are all abandoning Windows and embracing open source and free software, most notably the Linux operating system. As reported by the BBC, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva understands that proprietary, closed-code software is a serious economic development issue for the poorer countries of the world. The Brazilian government estimates it pays about $500 per workstation for the privilege of using Windows. By moving to open-source alternatives, it estimates it could save around $120 million a year.

Bill Gates is apparently been so concerned about Brazil’s move to open-source that Microsoft offered to sell the government a stripped-down, cheaper version of Windows XP. It also offered Brazilian companies a better credit deal if they buy Microsoft software. Gates even asked for a meeting with President Lula at the Davos Economic Forum in January, but Lula declined.

People in the world’s developing countries are starting to wise up about the predatory terms of western intellectual property – and the advantages of open source. It saves money and it allows you to customize the software to serve local or business-specific needs, something that you can’t do with Microsoft products. Also, open source software can be used on “old” computers, which makes it more feasible to get people living in Brazilian shanty-towns into the computer age.

As more developing countries seek to compete in world markets, I suspect that those nations that go open-source will end up becoming more innovative and competitive – at the expense of the United States and other developed countries. It stands to reason: Anyone locked into Microsoft’s proprietary universe does not have the license (literally!) to develop the most imaginative, efficient software solutions. Microsoft’s monopoly needs trump all. Proprietary code requires only that we be passive consumers, willing to pay through the nose for the next contrived upgrade.

But programmers with access to source code can bypass this proprietary snare. The world is waking up to this fact. Microsoft has already acknowledged, implicitly, its long-term competitive disadvantage by making portions of its source code available to college programmers. With good reason, they fear that they will lose more “mindshare” to open source unless they can entice young talent to enter into the Microsoft software world.

Another encouraging sign of the robustness of online life is the Wikimedia Commons, a new free, open media archive launched in September 2004. The Commons – which uses the same wiki technology that powers Wikipedia, the online, community-written encyclopedia – announced this week that the 100,000th file had been uploaded to its online repository of free images, sounds, and videos. The files were chosen or created by 5,259 registered users from more than 12 different languages. Once uploaded to the Wikimedia Commons, files can be used royalty-free for any purpose. Most of them require attribution of the creator; some require that any derivative works must be available for free re-use.

A press release gave an idea of some of the diverse stuff available at the Wikimedia Commons:

Finally, the bad news. The Times of London reports that the British government wants to extend the current terms of copyright law to nearly twice as long as the current 50 years (in the U.K.) as an explicit subsidy for the record industry.

The new minister for creative industries in Great Britain, James Purnell, justified the indirect copyright “tax” this way: “The music industry is a risky business and finding talent and artists is expensive. There is a view that long-term earners are needed so that the record companies can plough money back into unearthing new talent. Banks like Coldplay will make enough money for their company to help them discover around 50 or 100 bands.”

What a joke! Copyright law is meant to provide incentives to authors, not the middlemen that buy and distribute authors’ works. The problem with giving the record industry this intellectual property windfall is that it is throwing good money after bad. The music industry doesn’t care about new talent and it doesn’t understand contemporary culture. It only cares about highly marketable blockbuster groups and selling their inconvenient, copy-encrypted CDs through the industry’s costly, inefficient distribution system. No wonder the industry is in financial and creative decline.

If copyright terms in the UK are extended to 90 years (the current U.S. term for corporate-owned works), the great songs by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – and thousands of other classics – won’t enter the public domain in 2013 to 2020. They will remain proprietary until 2053 and beyond. This would be a brazen ripoff of the public domain, pure and simple, by a concentrated recording industry that is obsessed with short-term success and unwilling to take risks on or nurture new talent.

You want fresh new talent to reach the market rapidly and efficiently? Take a cue from President Lula and Wikimedia Commons. New creativity will come flooding in faster than you can say Linus Torvalds or D.J. Dangermouse.