It’s no secret that property rights are a core element of western civilization and capitalistic societies. These property rights define how goods and services can be used, traded, or saved. Both individual and larger entities can own property and they can choose to use (or not use) that property however they wish. This is of course dependent on the laws and regulations governing property rights. However, certain types of goods, e.g. environmental services or knowledge, have not historically been considered private property as they, in theory, belong to the general public because they are the product of a given culture. Such goods are typically defined as public goods or the Commons.
However, following changes to corporate practice and property rights laws in the past 50 years, there has been a general trend towards the privatization of public goods and knowledge. Powerful interest groups have been successful in appropriating knowledge and technology that had previously been freely shared, thereby enabling them to amass strongholds over markets, influence public policy, and ultimately steer economic development to suit corporate interests.
In all fairness, as technology has advanced and specialized, knowledge development and innovation have become more expensive and corporations are often the financiers of these innovations. However, the need for shareable and transferable technologies that benefit a wider audience remains. In response to this need, the concept of open-source has evolved and serves as a counterbalance to continued privatization.
Generally speaking, the concept of open-source can be understood as “a tool constituted by the provisions of contract law” (Kloppenburg 2014) that employs licensing rights to ensure that all users (e.g. software developers, plant breeders, etc.) have the right to view, copy, edit, distribute, and manipulate the source material (e.g. software or germplasm). In other words, people can modify and share the material because it is designed to be accessible by the public.
Such openness among developers and users is expected to encourage exchange, innovation, and community-focused development. This is in contrast to proprietary licensing which prohibits users from altering materials or products.
In addition to the objective of offering an alternative to the restrictions imposed by proprietary licensing schemes, interest in open-source licensing is grounded in a range of motivations. For example,
A major contributing factor in this respect is dissatisfaction with corporate appropriation and accumulation of knowledge. This follows the advent of the knowledge economy which transformed knowledge from a shared good and cultural element to a good that can be traded and sold. With market value now assigned to knowledge, large corporations have legally sought to hold exclusive rights over this knowledge. This, in turn, leads to dispossession and a loss of power and influence – the effects of which can be seen throughout the world, but disproportionately affects non-Westernized countries.
There is an interest in alternative means for innovation. Many are searching for ways to collaborate and share ideas in a professional but not necessarily corporate-based environment. Contributions in this respect help with personal development, problem-solving, and the general dissemination of knowledge.
Individuals and groups dissatisfied with their ideas and work being tied exclusively to one entity are also turning to open-source alternatives that redefine knowledge as a culturally and socially beneficial good. As a result, it has become better possible to manage the balance of power between public and private interests. Expanded awareness can enable the development of new frameworks for defining and protecting policy related to intellectual property.
In line with such motivations, the concept of open-source continues to evolve and expand into fields beyond software development. It is particularly relevant within the realm of agriculture where the consolidation of corporate power over seed supplies is both staggering and concerning and a means of protecting farmer’s rights to grow and save seed is imperative.
For more information about the open-source movement or to get started with a project using open-source technologies, check out:
- Aoki, K. (2008). Free seeds, not free beer: Participatory plant breeding, open source seeds, and acknowledging user innovation in agriculture. Fordham L. Rev., 77, 2275.
- Kloppenburg, J. (2010). Impeding dispossession, enabling repossession: biological open source and the recovery of seed sovereignty. Journal of agrarian change, 10(3), 367-388.
- Kloppenburg, J. (2014). Re-purposing the master’s tools: the open source seed initiative and the struggle for seed sovereignty. Journal of Peasant Studies, 41(6), 1225-1246.