Yesterday I attended the Memorial at MIT for Aaron Swartz, in the den of the lion, if you will. I made the drive in from Vermont because I thought I'd find a lot of the spirit which Aaron embodied there among his close friends. I was not disappointed.
I've resolved to start blogging again. It will be difficult to find the time to do this, now that planting season has begun. But everything worth doing is difficult.
I'll be replacing this place holder with thoughts on why it is that this death hit those of us two or more degrees removed so hard, and what I mean by "although openness thrives in the innocent, openness must not die with innocence."
My mother, who was born on a farm back when even corn farmers saved their own seed, taught me the basics of gardening. I, in turn, taught my children. I didn't know much about seed saving then, and identified with the open source programming crowd. I cheered as the Linux computer operating system, the kernel of which was shared by its originator Linus Torvalds on a newsgroup on Usenet (the equivalent to the world wide web in 1991), morphed from a curiosity into an operating system which runs everything from Android smart phones to many routers to most website servers and supercomputers. In the meantime, I developed petroleum allergies that led me to use computers less and return to my farming roots. I now identify as a seed saver, and I have been pleasantly surprised by how very much at home I feel with my newfound seed saving friends.
On January 18th this year, over 115,000 websites protested proposed legislation, which is unfriendly to the culture of sharing, by replacing their sites for one day with a message against SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the Senate's Protect Intellectual Property Act). Until the website "blackout", I hadn't given much thought to the similarities between seeds and open source programs. Seeds, like ideas and information, suffer more from neglect than from unrestricted propagation. They depend upon sharing to keep them vital. As Susan Ashworth put it (p. 13, Seed to Seed), "when elderly seed savers pass away, unless their seeds are replanted by other gardeners, their outstanding strains become extinct. Invaluable genetic characteristics are lost forever to future generations of gardeners and plant breeders."
Crucial to the work of both open source programmers and seed savers is a vibrant creative commons, which includes everything (whether seeds or computer code) that can be shared freely without running afoul of copyright or patent law. For seed savers, this includes all open pollinated seeds not under patent restriction. Open pollinated seeds come "true to type," which means that the offspring produced by an open pollinated variety resembles its parents. Open pollinated plants, like MP3 music files, are easy to propagate. Hybrid seed is worthless for saving or sharing. It is produced when two dissimilar (and usually genetically impoverished, or inbred) strains of a plant are used as parents to produce seed. The resulting seed grows into very uniform plants, since the genetic make-up of this seed is exceptionally lacking in diversity. However, the seed that hybrid plants in turn produce does not resemble its parents (come "true to type"). Often it is sterile or reverts back to its genetically impoverished grandparents. Thus, hybrid seed has a monopoly friendly built-in do-not-copy mechanism that makes it loved by the big producers but anathema to seed savers.
More ambitious seed savers and open source programmers work on improving and extending what can be shared with the community. Open source projects are loved by developers because the "source code," which, like the genes of a plant, control what a program is and does, is distributed with the program. A programmer with access to the source is able to modify the program to suit her particular needs. Developers don't have to beg the rights owners of a program to add needed features; instead they have the option of writing those features into the program themselves. Similarly, seed savers can select from open pollinated varieties the individual plants that thrive in their specific locations instead of settling for a standardized hybrid variety. These selected traits are carried on in the next generation of seeds, so other gardeners with similar needs can benefit from the selection. For both communities, sharing and building on the contributions of respected members is valued over uniformity and tight central control.
The Internet has always been a means of freely locating and sharing resources. Amazon and eBay host customer reviews, merchant ratings, and merchant websites. Wikipedia is a world class encyclopedia written by volunteers, unimaginable prior to the Internet. More recently, Kickstarter matches people seeking funding for projects with people willing to pay for them. The Internet is ideal for gratifying the human desire to freely share knowledge and resources for mutual benefit. User generated resources are the open pollinated seeds of the Internet, spreading knowledge and information and allowing it to recombine in exciting and novel ways.
But sometimes the propensity of seeds to reproduce themselves can get a person into trouble with the law. Just ask Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian farmer whom was successfully sued by Monsanto for infringing its patent on the "Roundup Ready" gene which made its way into canola seed grown on his farm in 1997. The court found (Schmeiser  FCT 256) that, since "he knew or ought to have known" the Monsanto gene was present in his seed (because some of the plants from which the seed was harvested had survived spraying by the glyphosate herbicide), he was guilty of patent infringement and Monsanto could confiscate his seed. To the court, it was immaterial that Mr. Schmeiser did not cause his seed to be contaminated with the patented gene, that he did not benefit from the presence of the gene, and that, with the loss of the contaminated seed, he also lost 50 years of his own work selecting seed adapted to his fields.
Legend has it that John Gilfeather, of Wardsboro, VT, was once the only grower of an especially desirable rutabaga, the Gilfeather turnip. To protect his strain, he would cut the bottoms and tops off his roots before selling them, so that competitors could not grow them. Despite this makeshift rights management scheme, however, somehow neighbors were able to obtain seed, and the strain survives yet today. Likewise, in the electronic realm, rights holders have been doing battle with infringers ever since the digital revolution started to threaten business models reliant upon the distribution of content via physical media (paper books, vinyl records, film pictures). As content and medium have become disconnected, it is as though rights holders' well-behaved hybrid plants morphed into rutabagas which could only partially be controlled, Gilfeather-style (DRM or digital rights management), and then morphed again into open pollinated annuals whose pollen would be carried not just for miles on the wind, but globally by the Internet.
Most people online understand that the purpose of copyright and patent is "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts" (Article I, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution). However, some rights holders take the word "property" in the phrase "intellectual property" too literally. To them, Percy Schmeiser stole the Round-Up Ready gene that reproduced itself in his seed, and deserved punishment.
For some years an uneasy truce between the two sides existed in the form of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA, 1998). The DMCA criminalized the circumvention of DRM (akin to getting seeds from mutilated rutabagas), but it also protected websites from liability for user generated infringement provided they promptly removed or blocked access to copyrighted materials when asked by a rights holder. This protection from liability is known as "safe harbor." To follow the analogy, they were not criminally liable for patented plants springing up on their land if they pulled the plants up promptly when asked.
But this truce was short lived. User generated information and content, like open pollinated seed, is hard to control or recall. YouTube, which hosted user-made videos that often mixed in clips of copyrighted sound and video, was a prime battleground. Some rights holders wanted stronger enforcement tools, which were embodied in legislation such as the Pro-IP Act (passed in 2008). Lack of protections for the accused in this legislation resulted in the destruction of legitimate sites (such as Dajaz1), enraging many Internet users. Thus, when SOPA/PIPA sought even greater powers for content holders, the Internet was primed for action.
On the day of the protest, the sheer volume of constituent opposition brought down legsislators' contact forms. Six Senate co-sponsors of PIPA withdrew their support the same day. Bills thought unstoppable a week before were shelved. Conventional media reported the PIPA/SOPA protests as a "clash of titans," a battle between lobbyists for Silicon Valley giants such as Google and Hollywood giants such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Chris Dodd, the former Senator turned MPAA lobbyist cried foul, saying "You've got an opponent who has the capacity to reach millions of people with a click of a mouse and there's no fact-checker." Conventional media and Chris Dodd fail to recognize that the Internet is not another platform for telling people what to believe. Rather, the Internet creates a culture which values collaboration and sharing of resources over uniformity and centralized control. This culture has built many programs which the Internet uses to run itself, including open source operating systems, website servers, and database software. It has challenged repressive authority in China, Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. And it has defeated the best of Washington's lobbyists -- for now.
Forward-thinking rights holders, including musician Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and computer trade book publisher O'Reilly, recognize that file sharing can benefit them. As Tim O'Reilly explains, "obscurity is a bigger problem than piracy." Large tech companies capitalize upon sharing. By 2002, Apple had transitioned to OS X, an operating system with open source roots whose variants run the iPhone and iPad. The Linux based Android operating system is entirely open source.
There is a part of me, tracing to ancestors who were proudly independent yet community minded farmers, which is deeply troubled by the loss of traditional seed varieties and the environmental destruction being wrought by those now in power. This part of me is heartened by the Internet, which empowers all who value collaboration for mutual benefit by making it easy to share the source.
Note: The piece above was published in the Spring, 2012 issue of the Upper Valley Food Co-op Community Newsletter. Once the UVFC gets a link-spam problem cleared up, I will link to their website.
This work by Anne Krauss is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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