OpenCola

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The Great Open Source Giveaway Graham Lawton, New Scientist July 1, 2002

If you've been to a computer show in recent months you might have seen it: a shiny silver drink can with a ring- pull logo and the words "opencola" on the side. Inside is a fizzy drink that tastes very much like Coca-Cola. Or is it Pepsi?

There's something else written on the can, though, which sets the drink apart. It says "check out the source at opencola.com." Go to that Web address [1] greg.rundlett (talk) 08:34, 6 June 2015 (EDT) and you'll see something that's not available on Coca-Cola's website, or Pepsi's -- the recipe for cola. For the first time ever, you can make the real thing in your own home.

OpenCola is the world's first "open source" consumer product. By calling it open source, its manufacturer is saying that instructions for making it are freely available. Anybody can make the drink, and anyone can modify and improve on the recipe as long as they, too, release their recipe into the public domain. As a way of doing business it's rather unusual -- the Coca-Cola Company doesn't make a habit of giving away precious commercial secrets. But that's the point.

(...)

Take OpenCola. Although originally intended as a promotional tool to explain open source software, the drink has taken on a life of its own. The Toronto-based OpenCola company has become better known for the drink than the software it was supposed to promote. Laird Brown, the company's senior strategist, attributes its success to a widespread mistrust of big corporations and the "proprietary nature of almost everything." A website selling the stuff has shifted 150,000 cans. Politically minded students in the US have started mixing up the recipe for parties.

OpenCola is a happy accident and poses no real threat to Coke or Pepsi, but elsewhere people are deliberately using the open source model to challenge entrenched interests. One popular target is the music industry. At the forefront of the attack is the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco group set up to defend civil liberties in the digital society. In April of last year, the EFF published a model copyleft called the Open Audio License (OAL). The idea is to let musicians take advantage of digital music's properties -- ease of copying and distribution -- rather than fighting against them. Musicians who release music under an OAL consent to their work being freely copied, performed, reworked and reissued, as long as these new products are released under the same licence. They can then rely on "viral distribution" to get heard. "If the people like the music, they will support the artist to ensure the artist can continue to make music," says Robin Gross of the EFF.

It's also not clear why any mainstream artists would ever choose to release music under an OAL. Many bands objected to the way Napster members circulated their music behind their backs, so why would they now allow unrestricted distribution, or consent to strangers fiddling round with their music? Sure enough, you're unlikely to have heard of any of the 20 bands that have posted music on the registry. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Open Audio amounts to little more than an opportunity for obscure artists to put themselves in the shop window.

The problems with open music, however, haven't put people off trying open source methods elsewhere. Encyclopedias, for example, look like fertile ground. Like software, they're collaborative and modular, need regular upgrading, and improve with peer review. But the first attempt, a free online reference called Nupedia, hasn't exactly taken off. Two years on, only 25 of its target 60,000 articles have been completed. "At the current rate it will never be a large encyclopedia," says editor-in-chief Larry Sanger. The main problem is that the experts Sanger wants to recruit to write articles have little incentive to participate. They don't score academic brownie points in the same way software engineers do for upgrading Linux, and Nupedia can't pay them.

It's a problem that's inherent to most open source products: how do you get people to chip in? Sanger says he's exploring ways to make money out of Nupedia while preserving the freedom of its content. Banner adverts are a possibility. But his best hope is that academics start citing Nupedia articles so authors can earn academic credit.

(...)

Another experiment that's proved its worth is the OpenLaw? project at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. Berkman lawyers specialise in cyberlaw -- hacking, copyright, encryption and so on -- and the centre has strong ties with the EFF and the open source software community. In 1998 faculty member Lawrence Lessig, now at Stanford Law School, was asked by online publisher Eldritch Press to mount a legal challenge to US copyright law. Eldritch takes books whose copyright has expired and publishes them on the Web, but new legislation to extend copyright from 50 to 70 years after the author's death was cutting off its supply of new material. Lessig invited law students at Harvard and elsewhere to help craft legal arguments challenging the new law on an online forum, which evolved into OpenLaw.

Normal law firms write arguments the way commercial software companies write code. Lawyers discuss a case behind closed doors, and although their final product is released in court, the discussions or "source code" that produced it remain secret. In contrast, OpenLaw crafts its arguments in public and releases them under a copyleft. "We deliberately used free software as a model," says Wendy Selzer, who took over OpenLaw when Lessig moved to Stanford. Around 50 legal scholars now work on Eldritch's case, and OpenLaw has taken other cases, too.

(...)

The open content movement is still at an early stage and it's hard to predict how far it will spread. "I'm not sure there are other areas where open source would work," says Sanger. "If there were, we might have started it ourselves." Eric Raymond has also expressed doubts. In his much-quoted 1997 essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, he warned against applying open source methods to other products. "Music and most books are not like software, because they don't generally need to be debugged or maintained," he wrote. Without that need, the products gain little from others' scrutiny and reworking, so there's little benefit in open sourcing. "I do not want to weaken the winning argument for open sourcing software by tying it to a potential loser," he wrote.

But Raymond's views have now shifted subtly. "I'm more willing to admit that I might talk about areas other than software someday," he told New Scientist. "But not now." The right time will be once open source software has won the battle of ideas, he says. He expects that to happen around 2005.

And so the experiment goes on. As a contribution to it, New Scientist and AlterNet have agreed to issue this article under a copyleft. That means you can copy it, redistribute it, reprint it in whole or in part, and generally play around with it as long as you, too, release your version under a copyleft and abide by the other terms and conditions in the licence. We also ask that you inform us of any use you make of the article, by e-mailing copyleft@newscientist.com.

One reason for doing so is that by releasing it under a copyleft, we can print the recipe for OpenCola without violating its copyleft. If nothing else, that demonstrates the power of the copyleft to spread itself. But there's another reason, too: to see what happens. To my knowledge this is the first magazine article published under a copyleft. Who knows what the outcome will be? Perhaps the article will disappear without a trace. Perhaps it will be photocopied, redistributed, re-edited, rewritten, cut and pasted onto websites, handbills and articles all over the world. I don't know -- but that's the point. It's not up to me any more. The decision belongs to all of us.

THE INFORMATION IN THIS ARTICLE IS FREE. It may be copied, distributed and/or modified under the conditions set down in the Design Science License published by Michael Stutz at http://dsl.org/copyleft/dsl.txt.

References[edit source]

  1. The site is long-gone, but can still be retrieved from the "Wayback Machine" https://web.archive.org/web/20010218075323/http://www.opencola.com/download/3_softdrink/formula.shtml