REFLECTION ON FREE AND OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE (FOSS)
Every invention and discovery is a breakthrough to human limitations. One of the marvelous inventions in the last century is the internet. It has tremendously transformed the flow of information, which is one of the basic requirements for human development. The realization of many of the UN declared human rights and SDGs depend on information. Education for all, health improvement, hunger alleviation, environmental/ecological care, and poverty alleviation will be achieved if people are able to have access to the right information. In view of this, the UN human right number 19 declares that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (emphasis mine).
Nevertheless, some important information to give basic access to the Internet are right protected, hence not accessible to many people and nations. This has created what is called the digital divide. What happens is that most important scientific research articles that appear in journals on the Internet, besides being bought, charge certain fees any time they are accessed. I agree with the Public Library of Science (PLOS) which argues on their site that this doesn’t make sense since published articles on the internet are published once and for all, unlike hard copies which the authors have to pay for new printing cost anytime a reprinting or new edition is done.
This restriction and apparent impediment to the realization of a human right has given birth to the Open Access movement and campaigns for Free Open Source Software (FOSS). Their main concern, as presented by Burns, is that the digital literature must be free in terms of fee, running the program for any purpose, studying how it operates, modifying the program and distributing copies. Three declarations of this movement in Budapest, February 14, 2002; Bethesda, June 20, 2003; and Berlin October 22, 2003 are considered capstones. Seaming the three declarations together I come to understand Open Access as a comprehensive source of human knowledge and cultural heritage, to which copyright holders give free access to all users, permitting them to download, and use the full text without any legal implications.
Those who may be against free open sources of information may argue that this will kill the motivation for hard-work and industry. Information is an intellectual property so what will be the motive of laboring intellectually and having nothing of one’s own? The argument here is that if scientific research information has to be made free, what will come on the internet at the end will be very porous. Furthermore, the so called developing countries will continue to be dependent on brains from the developed world; they will just be spoon-fed, always receiving the fish without knowing how to fish. The argument from this side is that researchers from developing countries can always source for funds that sponsor scientific works.
I argue for free open source of information from the angle that information is also a common good. It is part of the basic necessary things that the human being needs to attain fulfillment. The common good many times needs one person to discover it but the usage is by all. A Ghanaian adage says “it takes one man to kill an elephant but an entire village eats it” and “the cock may belong to only one person but it crows to wake up the entire household”. The invention of the airplane by the Wright brothers is today a heritage to humanity. From that first simple aircraft invented in 1930, today engineers have built upon it to create war planes and airbuses. I think the most important motivation and drive for research should not just be money but the contribution one makes to the advancement of humanity and culture. The name of Marconi who invented the radio will never be lost just as Dr. Albert Salk who also invented the polio vaccine has carved a niche for himself in the medical mausoleum.
The free open source of information does not target just western researchers alone. The argument is that since most of these researchers are funded by agencies, government and universities, the results of their findings should be for free public consumption. The tax payer has somehow contributed to their findings therefore the same tax payer should not pay for what they have contributed to sponsor.
Rarely do inventors start from no where. There is always a take-off from where somebody stopped. Therefore with open access, researchers will not need to start from zero but continue to build on what others have already done. This will save time, expedite research work and accelerate development. It will save money as well since one will not have to waste resources to do the same research someone has already done so well.
In addition, free and open access will mean that teachers and students will be able to build their own customized libraries and archives. This will be possible because they will be able to download and save articles and books they will need for their works and make them easily accessible on their computers.
Today access to the Internet is no longer a luxury but a necessity. It has now become a matter of social justice. It is a common good. For society to be just, all people must have access to what is considered basic necessity for the proper functioning of human beings in that society. One of such things as we have seen above is information. All barriers and restrictions should be removed to encourage people to freely but responsibly seek and exchange information. There will be no justice if some people are deprived an available basic necessity just because they have no money to pay. Ultimately, the distribution of information is a principle of equity and justice as Virginia Eubanks asserts.
We must look at global development as total and holistic. Our world is not developed if some countries can travel to and fro the moon, while others still struggle to have potable water. Dr. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana once said “the independence of Ghana is meaningless until it is linked with the total liberation of Africa”.
In my opinion, the possession of information can create a third force of power, with politics and money being the first and second respectively. As usual those who have the source of power control. They are usually not the majority but the minority. When power is handled only by the capitalist the poor suffer more. What I can see is the capitalization of information if everything is restricted. In this case the digital divide will become wider since this essential commodity will be controlled by market variables. This is what the free open source wants to mitigate.
In order not to extinguish the zeal for scientific research, free open resource software should be sponsored fully by governments. Open access movements should form associations that have license to provide platform for authors who would like to publish for free as PLOS has done. In conclusion I think the strength of the argument for Free Open Source Software (FOSS) and Open Access is the principle of justice, equity, the common good and solidarity.
The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, (2005). Compendium of the Social Doctrines of the Church. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice.
Arhin, K. (1995). The Life and Work of Kwame Nkrumah. Accra: Africa Research and Publications.
Eubanks, V., (2011). Digital dead end: Fighting for social justice in the information age (Chapter two). Retrieved from St John’s University Libraries database.
Burns, S. C., (2011). Social justice and an information democracy with free and open source software. Information, Society and Justice, Volume 4, (2) 19–28.
United Nations. (n.d.). Universal declaration of human rights. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights
What the open-access movement doesn’t want you to know. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aaup.org/article/what-open-access-movement
Benefits of open access journals. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.plos.org/open-access
Suber, P., (n.d.). Open access overview. Focusing on open access to peer-reviewed research articles and their preprints. Retrieved from https://legacy.earlham.edu
Read the Budapest open access initiative. (2002, February 14). Retrieved from https://www.budapestopenaccessinitiative.org/read
Bethesda statement on open access publishing. (2003, June 20). Retrieved from https://legacy.earlham.edu/bethesda
Berlin declaration on open access to knowledge in the sciences and humanities. (2003, October 22). Retrieved from https://openaccess.mpg.de/Berlin-Declaration.