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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 209
March 12, 2011

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Promoting open source software

Fayazuddin Ahmad

Open Source Software (OSS) has built it's consign as alternative to proprietary software. There are specific attributes of OSS that make it a very practical option especially for countries like Bangladesh increasing ability for the users to use OSS legally without having to pay and customise it to the community's needs building localised versions of the software that is often much more meaningful to the typical target audience.

Likewise, Open Content (OC) offers equivalent freedoms but is applied to non-software content such as text, images, audio-video clips etc. Communities are able to use, distribute and modify content that can be utilised for wider information and knowledge dissemination easily and economically. And Open Standards (OS) are specifications that ensure interoperability without which systems developed by different groups will not be able to interact with each other resulting in islands of data and silos of operation.

OSS enabled easy and free adaptation to the needs of particular countries. And most of these countries the primary beneficiaries are the respective government agencies. When it comes specifically to the software developers in the global south they do not need to accept software developed according to western needs without any real opportunity for local adaptation. Instead they can make their own free contribution to the pool of resources or modify existing software or develop content freely to meet their own needs.

Open source community altogether transformed the interpretation of copyright that it should guarantee benefit not only the author but also progress and society as a whole. OSS openly posed challenge to the idea and practice of Intellectual Property (IP) in the software industry. Almost all leading players after '90s began to introduce open source licensing. OSS increased reverse effects in result of its continuous stretch of the IP rights. On the other hand importance of IP rose with mass-sharing but it opens up the scope that IP regime may become more complex.

Nevertheless, this openness created a balance in commercial regulations. So far there are no regulations on the rights of softwares and any litigation on OSS licensing. Thus still interpretations of licenses are dependent on IP regime. Moreover, regulatory conflicts or licensing violations were mainly absent considering the popularity of the OSS. And this credit goes to hands-on community level control with successful mutual conflict resolutions.

Governance at the global level of IP is presently structured by the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) agreement and monitored by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). OSS is that alternative which ameliorates most of the cost problems and will enable countries of the global south to install widespread computerisation without making large payments to suppliers from the developed countries. By avoiding the TRIPs' trap, many of them will be better positioned to enjoy the prospective payback of development.

OSS provides the option to develop new component based on existing software, thus increasing the participation and competition in the market, also helps to improve the quality. Proprietary software vendors maintain there data using there own format, which is not open. Most of the time they do it intentionally so that no other vendor can make software that can use its data. OSS can eliminate this problem. OSS helps to develop local users' capacity by making software available to them at zero or low licensing cost and allowing free redistribution.

Most proprietary softwares are developed only in few developed countries. Other countries have to buy those licenses from them. It is difficult for a developing country to come up with a very good quality proprietary software as it take good amount of time and resources to develop a software in proprietary model. Nevertheless, developing software in open source model is much feasible to developing countries as it allows participation of worldwide developer's community.

Security is an important issue for which countries are moving towards OSS. Proprietary software usually distributed in executable format only. Source code and design is not available there. Consequently, there is no way to understand if software does something unwanted. It may contain some malicious code that can be a threat to security or it may allow an intruder to attack on the computer and steal confidential information. Also main reason of software piracy is high cost of software. As OSS allows copying of the software, there is no chance to copyright breach.

OSS is important not only in ICT education, but also in all those sectors of education where ICT is leveraged. OSS also plays an important role in e-learning. Cost is one of the important reasons for using OSS in academia. There are a great number of softwares used in the educational institutes in Bangladesh in all these categories, several OSS are available.

Therefore, OSS is the only feasible solution for them. OSS also provides an innovative environment. When the code is open, the students are more encouraged to think about the software and can come up with innovative ideas. From these codes, students also can learn a lot about coding, design and technology (e.g. sourceforge or freshmeat). OC can also open huge amount of books and other materials whose copyright have expired.

Key reasons behind adopting OSS for e-Governance are cost, security and independence. Using OSS in government helps to develop skilled computer professionals but there is a switching cost. OC can ensure peoples' access to information for poverty reduction, public participation for decentralized decision-making, cultural promotion-preservation and also indigenous knowledge and expertise dissemination and preservation. In case of OS already many countries have started e-Government projects, most of which have policies stating that open IT standard and specifications are to be followed.

Recently ITES industry in Bangladesh decided to move to OSS. End-user needs varies from user to user. But in general, end-users want user-friendliness, reliability, security, low cost and support. Recent available desktop linux distributions are very much user friendly. Security is the other most important feature where the OSS outperforms proprietary software. As the code is open it is well tested for security by programmers all around the world. Now days when open source software can provide the user almost all the features (sometimes more features) than the proprietary ones. And many OSS are available at zero cost. The user can get support with the software from worldwide online user community. Also there have to be a good number of developers with the capacity to work on OSS.

Bangladesh is already going ahead taking diverse initiatives to use ICTs in grassroots. OC is vital as it not only makes information available but it also ensures free access to that. The information is not necessarily only in text format; it can be images, audio or video files. The open source framework allows microfinance institutions to select locally based development and support services to assist with customization of their software, maintenance and implementation support services.

Civil society, NGOs and groups are working for OSS also on its localisation and came up with open bangla fonts, keyboard layout etc. Some came up with Bangla Linux and are also working on Open Office localisation and popularization jointly with Bangladesh Open Source Network (BdOSN). BdOSN is working on popularization and localisation of OSS. Initiatives focused on the philosophy of open source to school and college students inspiring them to start using open source software for the development of country and their own skill.

For meaningful ICT based initiatives, open source and OC bring potential cost savings and the ability to localise software and content to the needs of local communities resulting in cheaper, quicker and wider sharing of information that has vital contribution to poverty alleviation, raising education quality, and bolstering democratic governance; open standards ensure that such information and knowledge are stored and published in a format that all software systems understand. This can also help in issues like bridging gaps in the generation of technologies and digital divide.

Bangladesh government has to take significant step towards promoting OSS, OC and OS. Still there is no specific policy for this. The projects initiated by the Government stands in favour of OSS and OS. A Centre for Open Content can work on creation of open content, localisation of open content and maintenance of open content. Universities and NGOs can also initiate collaborative projects for creation of open content specially those that are useful for education. Research projects for OSS readiness assessment can also be initiated.

The author is an Advocate and Socio-Legal Researcher.


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