Open Source/Open Access

The fundamental concept behind open sourcing is access to, production of, and distribution of a project that is unrestricted and free. Openness does not imply that resources such as time, talents, and ATP (yes, I’m a biologist) are not expended – only that money (extrinsic motivators) be more or less taken out of the picture. In this sense, open sourcing is really all about developing common pool resources – resources that a group of individuals agrees to share, develop, and protect in a common fashion.

Openness does not imply that resources such as time, talents, and ATP are not expended – only that money be more or less taken out of the picture.

No commons is without rules: in fact, the most successful commons have very strong rules which the community agree to abide by. In the case of the traditional sense of free (read: “open source”) software, the GNU license is thought of as the core body of rules that users agree to abide by. Fundamentally, this set of rules is based on a philosophy that creativity and participation are renewable, unlimited resources which will be continually developed if there is sufficient trust.


The exact opposite philosophical approach is that of patenting. Patents assume that there is a shortage of 1) ideas, 2) altruistic, participatory behavior, 3) trustworthy use by others, and provide a means of protecting the resource for the 4) express monetary use (also limited) of that resource by one individual or organization. The obvious attraction to patents is the promise of monetary reward for the effective exploitation of a specific resource/piece of information in order to successfully compete in a free market (also driven by monetary value). Unfortunately, though patents fundamentally protect the rights of the originator, they tend to be prohibitively expensive to produce, license, and enforce. The allure is that once the patent is obtained, you will be able to recoup those costs by licensing or protected production.

Patents fundamentally protect the rights of the originator, but tend to be prohibitively expensive to produce, license, and enforce.

This whole system is based on a definition of economics that is inherently narrow – most people experience little or no intrinsic value (utility) from money; it is the definition of monetary value as an economic utility and its (current) universality that drive people to desire it. The very philosophy behind Open movements opposes this definition and identifies more intrinsic and meaningful sources of value/utility for individuals and organizations.


My goal in describing the dichotomy between these two systems is not to diminish the importance of protecting intellectual property, only to identify that building walls does not build innovation, but rather causes stratification. Access to ideas enables people to disagree with them and propose alternative solutions. The access that academicians have to knowledge about the universe has not diminished the variety of ideas nor the proliferation of ways and means of doing things. On the contrary, the greater access academicians have to each other’s work(s) leads to greater debate and discussion which inherently leads to greater innovation and advancement of intellectual pursuits. This is the same with other intellectual property pursuits as greater access does not somehow diminish the development of ideas: when more people can share their ideas and debate them, greater work can be accomplished.


The obvious caveat which the academic world has more or less dealt with is that of attribution: when a scientist proposes a theory and works on it, it becomes their unique property, though others have access to debate and or improve it. This is a subject open to much debate in the private sector: how to protect the originator of the idea/process etc. I want to address this in the next couple of posts, but here’s a quick spoiler: I think the solution is protection of attribution with full sharing of the data/product.