Open Source, Open World

Where Free Software Came From -- And Where It's Going

(Ivan Plata / Flickr)

In the first week of July, 7,000 people gathered in Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil, for the annual meeting of the International Free Software Forum. Every year since 2000, the forum has met to discuss what is commonly known as open source software -- software that individuals can use, change, and redistribute -- and is called “free software” by many of its true believers. The forum, one of the world’s largest, takes place thousands of miles away from the place where the free-software movement originally started, at American universities such as MIT and Berkeley. And that is no accident. Although the production of free software remains largely centered in the United States, it could end up having greater economic and political consequences for places like Brazil.

SOFT ON SOFTWARE

From the earliest days of computing in the 1950s and 1960s, technology firms recognized the economic value of computer hardware. They sold physical computers at high prices and protected the designs using patents and nondisclosure agreements. The tight control exerted by the computer manufacturers, which were mostly based in the United States and Europe, angered many engineers in countries such as Brazil, who wished to see such technologies produced in their own countries. Reliance on foreign technologies also worried policymakers in the developing world, since the high cost of imported machines threatened to drain sparse foreign currency reserves. The increased use of computers for military purposes made dependence on imported computers all the more unnerving.

In the mid-1970s, Brazil resolved to address those concerns by building a national computer industry. It was one of only a small number of developing countries to attempt to do so. By early 1977, the country had introduced a new policy: foreign computer makers would be allowed to sell certain kinds of computers in Brazil only if they agreed to manufacture them there and to license their technology to Brazilian partners. Some foreign companies agreed to play along. Most did not. The policy lasted through the mid-1980s, and its legacy has been disputed ever since. For some, it was a heroic battle of David against Goliath that left Brazil stronger, even though it eventually lost the fight. For others, it was a nationalistic boondoggle that deprived a generation of Brazilians from access to good foreign computers.

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