I was thinking today about intellectual property in the library world. Specifically, what prompted my musings was Elon Musk’s blog post about patents and the Tesla Motor Company last week.
Already the global news cycle has come and gone on it. But, I think it’s interesting to think about the obligations of those interested in shaping social change and how intellectual property plays a part in that. Next week I will be at ALA and one of my favorite parts of a large event like ALA is looking at the vendor floor filled with businesses eager for my library to accept an invoice. But the question is, are they people I want to do business with?
Let me back up a bit.
Elon Musk has stated that his goal isn’t merely to build successful businesses but to push the world forward. And he’s now realized it has to inform how he as a capitalist interacts with and shares with others. He wants to help create a common baseline any manufacturer could build a vehicle off of. Should all businesses have an obligation to help move the world forward rather than just their profit margins? Is there a possibility of one day developing a core set of freely shared technologies that anyone could build an ILS from? Oh, wait a minute, that’s already being done …
Stepping back a bit more, the industrial age was dominated by the development of technologies that allowed goods to be made in greater precision and volume than ever before. Often the knowledge of how to do this was freely stolen. Note, I don’t say they were shared but once a competitor acquired the knowledge of how to do something there was little going back. And I’m not saying that this was good but it was an aspect of an age of expansion. We did socially reap benefits from information being distributed, even illegally.
The information age finds us making goods out of information itself. Never have we been so well prepared to defend intellectual property. As a society we litigate – comprehensively and aggressively. Maybe we instinctively hoard information because we know it is valuable. And libraries, entities who should be at the forefront of sharing, who make our very existence off making information available to our patrons, are as guilty of not sharing as anyone.
Fortunately, that is changing. OCLC is embracing the Open Data licence and is encouraging their members to do the same, which is a wonderful thing.
Open Data Commons Attribution License
I would love to see this go further into institutional data far beyond what is collected on the state and federal level. I periodically find archives being loaded on the web by libraries using some variant of the Creative Commons licences, also a good thing.
When we share, everyone wins
And finally, a few libraries are embracing Open Source. The licences vary by project but the heart of all the licences is allowing new tools to be built on existing ones. And there are many small projects like libraries to handle data types or protocols but those are building blocks. Musk realized that he had to start sharing how you stack the building blocks – how you make the big stuff. Are we doing that? Frankly, Koha and Evergreen are pretty big things so companies involved in improving those are already building, and changing, the future. Opening ILSes, making them freely available, giving powerful tools to everyone regardless of income, valuing knowledge over money, these things change the world if they gain enough adoption. Don’t believe me? Look at Linux, Apache, PHP, MySQL, Postgres, Perl and so on. If you think widely adopted open source products haven’t changed the world you live in a state of denial.
Musk realizes that companies need to change the world as there is a role there no one else will fill. His businesses are means of supporting positive change as well as generating profit. Being open is not anti-capitalist, it’s an adaptive strategy for a changing world. He’s invoking the ideology of the FLOSS movement in his blog entry even if he is not participating in it. The simple act of adding to the base of freely used, functional, technology gives the future a deeper toolbox with each contribution. That is a morally virtuous act that he wants to align with even if he can’t adopt it due to the nature of the patent system. But it’s not the moral element that fascinates me about Musk’s entry, it is the implication he makes that by opening access to technologies protected by his patents, essentially vowing to not pursue his intellectual property rights, he is declaring that is the ethical mandate of his company to share. To rephrase and repeat, like any good reference librarian, Elon Musk is saying that profit is not the sole ethical mandate of his company.
I would call out library corporations to look at what they can open source or at least share by some means. I would say that library vendors who don’t share where they reasonably can are acting immorally. Note, I don’t say unethically, that is an entirely different matter, determined by their own corporate structure. In fact I worry that they have an ethical obligation in their roles to do immoral things.
What can they share? I don’t know. Clearly it’s not realistic for an ILS vendor to GPL their entire codebase and dump it on Github. But I find it hard to believe there isn’t anything they can share. Maybe a library of code for RDA checking. Maybe a Z29.50 server. Maybe a network diagnostic tool. Maybe data about usage needs.
Elon Musk’s blog post raised eyebrows because he rejected the idea that hoarding information is a business’s ethical obligation. We already have vendors who support open source and believe that sharing is an ethical requirement to being in the library community. I think libraries should hold vendors to that standard. I want to support companies who act in a manner I think is both ethical and morale in regards to supporting not only my library this fiscal year but the libraries of tomorrow and open source is a big part of that.