May 5, 2017
Prior to joining this class, I did not know anything about open source design. I only signed up for the course because I saw that it dealt with social entrepreneurship, a topic that I was considering including in my thesis. After being in the course this semester, I can now say that I have a thorough understanding of the concept of open source design, its limitations, and its uses. Thanks to the food computer project, I also have first hand experience building from an open source design. In each of the blog posts I’ve written thus far, I have explored the range of possible solutions that open source design offers to solve some of the greatest challenges facing my generation such as climate change, infrastructure, food scarcity, and education. Now, I would like to explore some of the challenges that open source design faces in our current political and economic climate. Then, I will offer some possible solutions to these challenges.
First, the biggest challenge I see facing open source design is the current intellectual property focus of law in the United States and the power that IP-based companies have to keep those laws in place. The history of patent law in the United States goes all the way back to colonial times (Wikipedia). Even before federal patent laws were in place, inventors could appeal to their colonial governments to have their inventions protected (Wikipedia). Since then, over two hundred years worth of case precedent has been built around the protection of intellectual property and patents (Wikipedia). Though it would be possible for congress to explore changes to these laws, they would still face an uphill battle against industry lobbyists whose companies rely on intellectual property laws. Any company can take advantage of lobbyists, who give them access to government officials and tell them where their corporate money will be most effective (CBSNews). Thousands of companies in the United States have lobbyists including those companies in industries such as pharmaceuticals and chemicals that rely on patent protection for their corporate earnings (CBSNews).
The second biggest challenge I see facing open source design is the lack of awareness among the general public. Over the course of the semester, I’ve shared my involvement in this course with a wide variety of people, from family members back home in Texas, to other students at UVA in the College and in the E-School. Oftentimes, after I explain what open source is, I get one of two responses. First, most family members from home tell me that open source would never work because it would slow economic growth and fail to incentivize innovation. Second, many friends at school seem to think that the benefits of open source design are limited to technology, specifically software. With the knowledge that I now have about open source design, I can explain to family members and friends why both of these responses are not true. However, I think these responses pose a unique challenge to open source. Not only do few people know what open source is, these people are also skeptical about the benefits of open source because we are all so used to thinking within an intellectual property context. Thus, the public needs to be educated on the concept of open source as well as pushed to think beyond the constraints of intellectual property.
To combat these challenges, members of the open source community need to encourage and educate their political representatives on the opportunities of open source, support companies that utilize open source design, and continue talking to their friends and family about the possibilities of open source. On the first point, when bills regarding issues such as climate change and education come up, members of the open source community can collaborate on how open source can be incorporated into those bills and then submit those recommendations to their political leaders. Working incrementally like this will not only spread awareness, but will also introduce the idea of open source in a palatable, realistic way. To achieve this political mobilization, I think there should be more online and community resources for open source dedicated to political action. Currently, many open source resources are dedicated only to education or knowledge sharing without a political focus. However, political mobilization is the only way to create long-lasting, institutional change. In addition, members of the open source community should support companies that utilize open source design and let those companies know that the companies have their support for that reason. Companies like Tesla and Google incorporate open source into their processes. But, members can also give financial support to projects like POC21. Lastly, the one of the best ways to spread an idea is through personal networks. Sharing open source articles on Facebook, participating in community builds based on open source design, and making a point to talk about open source with friends and family are just a few of the ways that members of the open source community can begin to spread these powerful ideas. I have so enjoyed learning about open source this semester and I hope to see these ideas better promulgated in the future through all of these means.