Imitation or Theft? Is OSS the epitome of knowledge sharing?

I’m bringing to the home page my recent addition to The Art of Knowledge Management page, as it truly is a debate of merit for this blog.

Picasso and Open Source Software

I was elated today to read on our Fall 2007 LIS/KM 5043 Design and Implementation of Web-Based Information Services class (led by Dr. Betsy Van der Veer Martens ) discussion board, that a fellow colleague introduced another great artist into a timely information/knowledge management debate.

One of Picasso’s quotes was mentioned in terms of open source software (OSS) and comments made by Steve Job in a fascinating documentary called “Triumph of the Nerds.” Commenting about the development of the PC and software in the mid-70s, he noted that it was borne out of the 60’s communal vibe that everyone contributes for the greater good, and so, according to my colleague, the fact that Silicon Valley is located where it is seems like no accident. As the 80s came around, Jobs noted a change in the industry when he quoted Picasso who said:

“Good artists imitate…great artists steal.”

So, true to the nature of this blog, I did a little investigating in order to dig up some good parallels between Pablo and KM. And in the same way OSS designers take from one another, improve on an idea, then “create” a better product, so Picasso and his contemporaries were masters at taking inspiration from one another, personalizing it, then advancing the abstract art movement to a new level. Art Knowlegde News does an excellent job explaining Picasso’s blue period and the evolution of abstract art.

If you are so inclined, please enjoy one of my classmate’s (Steven Shelton) passionate and eloquent comments on OSS:

We should be free to participate in the system we choose: the closed, proprietary system or the more communal open source system. My point is that when innovations are shared in a community, innovation grows exponentially (the OSS model). The early growth of the Internet is an example of this kind of information sharing.

I’ve worked in the graphic arts field and had my ideas stolen, and I didn’t like that. But, I did (and do) enjoy sharing tricks and tips with my peers (my fellow artisans, for lack of better term). If I find a better way to secure a Windows computer for public use, it seems irrelevant how much time I spent developing it. It is much more useful if I share it openly with others (who are very likely to improve on it and share that information with myself and others). I find this kind of sharing quite prevalent among librarians. Thank goodness, there are so many experts on the Internet who freely share their hard won wisdom and expertise to teach us things like CSS, HTML, podcasting, etc. They certainly could choose to sell it in book from or charge for that same information which would be fine and acceptable, but have less dissemination.

Those programmers who make up the OSS movement choose to share their code, their labour (though many are paid for this work) with the understanding that a thousand eyes are better at finding bugs than just one set.

I really suggest that if anyone wants to understand the premise of OSS, they should read The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which Doc Martens has mentioned in the Open Source discussion board. (which I’ve pasted below)

Most of you who are interested in this probably have already read Eric Raymond’s classic essay in “First Monday”
so here’s his own page with more (including some links to extensions and critiques):

Today’s question: Is OSS the epitome of knowledge sharing? SHARE your thoughts!


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