There is concern that GPL-covered software may be unworkable in up-and-coming developing countries where rampant piracy may ultimately compromise IPR protections inherent in copyright law.
Sounding IPR alarms
A recent school of thought among some Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) analysts in the West suggests that GPL-covered software may be unworkable in up-and-coming developing countries where software piracy is epidemic.
Despite severe pressure from treaty administration bodies like the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), many developing countries do not adequately enforce copyrights. In reality, unfortunately, piracy and its supporting framework are often the consequence of purchasing parity inequities as well as the result of different cultural norms.
Loudly ringing alarm bells, IPR watchdogs fear that activities and attitudes supporting software piracy in developing countries may ultimately compromise IPR protections inherent in copyright law. Ironically, free software, such as GPL-covered code, depends on the successful operation of copyright guarantees. Furthermore, any impact on free and open source software would not be confined to only developing countries. Because of collaboration and software exchange as well as the degree to which sharing is enabled by the Internet, the legitimacy and licensability of the open source commons could be contaminated on a world-wide basis.
Analysts argue that proprietary and non-free software may be absorbed inappropriately by developing economies which are disrespectful of IPR into the body of free and open source software which is otherwise strongly protected by the reciprocity requirements of open source licenses such as the GPL. In a doomsday scenario for open source, contamination may destroy the licensability of open source software, particularly copy-left GPL code, across the globe.
“The flowers of collaboration are ready to bloom, but the garden needs to be tilled more broadly in the developing world.”
A closer look
However, based on closer observation, the chemistry in developing countries appears different than presumed by these somewhat near-sighted observers from the West. Most organizations in developing economies, across government, education and industry, who choose open source and free software solutions do care genuinely about copyright licensability even if the local laws are sometimes difficult to interpret or to enforce. While the details of enforcement vary and where legislation and legal interpretation are vague, nonetheless, the spirit of both copy-left and attribution style open source software licenses are regarded carefully and seriously.
In particular, if an organization chooses to implement a GPL style project, then great care is usually taken to abide by the regulations spelled out by such a license. In fact, copy-left licenses are often selected in order to derive the presumed benefits of such a license. The benefits are perceived to include integration with other GPL-licensed code, building a community of developers and users through interaction and reciprocity, generation of good-will, etc. There is no general intention to subvert the common base of GPL and open source software.
In contrast to suppositions by some Western observers, piracy of end-user or retail software products has little bearing on the motivations for choosing to implement projects based on open source software. When software piracy is pursued, there is an active attempt both to minimize expenses as well as to profit from IPR theft. However, when free and open source software is chosen, there typically is a proactive intent to obtain the benefits of sharing and collaboration. The only real problem in developing countries is that progressive and enlightened leadership is often lacking and the ease of succumbing to artificial market subsidies by proprietary vendors or ignoring rampant product piracy wins in the end. Equally damaging, the benefits of sharing and collaboration often are not considered in purchasing decisions and project implementations in the automation efforts of organizations. The flowers of collaboration are ready to bloom, but the garden needs to be tilled more broadly in the developing world.
Good intentions protect the spirit of open source even in developing countries
The IPR pundits of the West need not worry so much about a disrespect for IPR destroying the basis for free and open source software. Any lack of respect of IPR cannot be separated from the intent of the IPR. If IPR is used to enforce purchasing power inequalities, then it is inevitably on a collision course with anti-IPR forces and piracy in its many forms. However, where IPR is used to increase knowledge and wealth through collaboration and sharing, there is evidence for genuine enthusiasm and protection for that use of IPR. One can only hope that the impediments to the adoption of free and open source IPR will be overcome more rapidly in developing economies.