Could OSS withstand the attack of the GMO's?

UPDATE (April, 23 2010: 21:45 CDT): Another thing I would like to add: I have been experiencing some fairly serious health issues recently due to poor eating habits and food choices, so food quality and health are on my mind a lot these days. I.e. having choices and the ability to know exactly what I am eating is not just of passing interest to me, but critical to my ability to get and stay healthy. So, I've decided to support the "Food Democracy Now!" right-to-know campaign as I believe the critical threat here is to our freedom of information and freedom of choice (for both farmers and consumers) as all other issues surrounding our food supply devolve from there.

I just signed a letter to FDA Deputy Commissioner of Food Michael Taylor and USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan asking that they not stifle international and U.S. regulations regarding the labeling of GMO food. It's important that American's know how their food is grown. We have a right to know what's in our food and the U.S. government should not be working to stifle these basic rights.

If you share my concerns, please consider signing their petition:

UPDATE(April, 23 2010: 12:11 CDT): added link to the documentary I am referring to below (Food, Inc.)

(GMO and OSS - depending on who you are and how you got here, one of these acronyms might not mean much to you, while the other one is very familiar. My goal here is to show that you actually know more about both of them than you realize)

This started as an attempt to understand what I was feeling after watching the documentary Food, Inc. last night - particularly how the issues it raised are similar to software and techology issues (though a lot scarier and much less talked about).

One of these is Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO's. To show the parallels, I've written the following fairy tale (set in the not-to-distant-future) and I'd like you to imagine yourself as our protagonist:

You control a moderately large and successful software security company. One day, you develop a game-changing product, Knock Out Pro ("don't discriminate... eliminate!") that permanently disables any computer it is used against. You successfully market it to governments and big companies ("wipes out botnets, zombie pc's, illegal content servers and all manner of subversive and undesirable computers on contact!") as well as individuals (for "household use only") and it gets widely deployed and used world-wide.

Yay. You're rich. Undesirable computers are being wiped out. You're a hero... and the only game in town: you scored a US patent for your product's innovative ability to do what it does and new cooperative trade agreements have you covered across the globe.

Except - there's this nagging potential for collateral damage when customers actually use Knock Out Pro. (most of) Your customers would prefer to wipe out only bad computers. Problem is, your product is effective precisely because it doesn't discriminate, it eliminates, remember? Your unique, patented genius is precisely that you left all that pesky target evaluation to the customer and focused on removing the target effectively. However customers are spending a lot of time, effort (and money) to ensure they don't target good computers (at least ones they care about) when they use your product and so they're not entirely satisfied.

That's big money being wasted (so far). Wouldn't it be great if they gave that money to you too? Wouldn't it be great if you could just target a whole network, and only knock out the bad computers? But you've been in this industry for a while. You already have products that selectively disable computers and they work... kinda. Trouble is, it is really hard to spot a bad computer in a general way: The R&D is prohibitively expensive, the bad computers keep evolving and there's just so damn many different types of undesirable computers out there, that its a much less attractive market (look at how the anti-virus market is going).

Then it hits you: You'll start your own computer company and build computers that are immune to your product! Then your customers (your not worried about anyone else here) will be protected from... well you. But where to start? Well, how about an existing computer design - you could buy one, but that'd be expensive. Besides, computers have been around for a long time now, and there are all these open (i.e. publicly available) system designs and indeed implementations (Open Source Software and hardware and what not) all over the place. You never really got why anyone would freely share something so valuable (bunch of stupid commies) but hey their loss, your gain right? You grab one of those and get to work.

What your R & D team determines is that all it'll take is a relatively, small and easy change. I mean compared to building an entire working modern computer system - all you'll have to do is add in the bit that counters your other product and unfortunately, there's already a fair bit of research available out there for that (in fact you're already engaged in lawsuits trying to supress that information from getting out... thank god for the DMCA).

Wow, in no time, you'll have a whole array of computer products that meet an increasing number of you biggest clients' "good computer" needs. You thought you were rich before? This is going to be Microsoft money, baby.

But wait, now you have a new problem: the change is relatively small and easy, right? The system you're adapting is a publicly available design, those security "researchers" have already theorized about how to block your knock out punch, if you go and release a way to do it, you'll be screwed, right?

Luckily, you already employing a large (and growing) crack legal team and they offer a solution: Patent the countermeasure too! Not one for half measures, you tell them, that's all well and good, but you'd like it better if they just went ahead and patented the whole computer...


..."well," the lawyers reply, "That's gonna be kinda tricky. See there's this thing called the 'GNU Public License' and the countermeasure well, its a modification to this computer operating system called Linux, and the license does not permit you to patent Linux (umm, because you didn't create it). The hardware specs have a similar restriction."

You reply that you don't care about tricky, you care about results. And so they go to work as do your lobbyists, and lo and behold you get a shiny new patent on your original computer. Granted, there's still this GPL license to deal with, but with the patent, you figure that you might even be able sue those who wrote it in the first place. And so you build the computer, your customers eat them up like hotcakes, and you step out into grandeur beyond your wildest expectations...

Five years later, and my how things have changed. Sure the big tech companies are still around, but you're in the catbird seat. Some licensed your patent right away. Some (including the linux community) fought back of course, but you've tied that up in the courts for years to come, and now that the founding partner of your favorite law firm was just appointed to the US supreme court, the outcome isn't really in doubt. And sure, people don't "have" to buy your computers, but the are increasingly few places where knock out isn't being run what with the passage of the bipartisan bill: OCTPPCFPA (Online Child, Terrorism, Porn, Piracy, Copywrite Freedom Protection Act) and you have a small army of private investigators working night and day to figure out how those few businesses that aren't licensing your patent are getting away with it.

In short, the general consensus (according to anyone who matters) is that technology is entering a golden age - there are almost no bad computers any more... at least in the US and even the movie and music industries are starting to think the worst might be over for the whole piracy thing. The Internet-wild-west days are finally coming to an end and everyone has you to thank for it. Granted, there are some 3rd world countries where things are still wide open (and worse your products have been pirated), but fortunately they are largely walled off from the networks used by the civilized world... for now. Granted, the threat from them is real, and must be dealt with..., but seeing as how you've got the inside track on becoming the new cyber security czar (after all you are the expert) the future is looking bright indeed...

Just a fairy tale right? An obviously transparent and unrealistc protection racket that no one would ever go for?

Well, then reconsider our little fairy tale, but this time, instead of computers think plants and instead of "anti-botnet software" think herbicides, and instead of patented computers think patented genes.

That's right, plants that humanity has cultured and shaped for thousands of years (what's more open source than that?) have, in the last 20 years become proprietary and monoculture. Don't believe me? Watch the movie. It names, names. (I don't have that kind of legal budget). Or go read this: to see what's happening right now.

In short, the real harm I see in GMO's is not the health concerns, and other bugaboo disinformation that one generally hears in what little public discussion goes on about this stuff, but in the much broader and fundamental risks that what once was the Intellectual Property of the human race - the result of 10,000 years of cultivating crops - and all the value created by it, as well as the freedom of our farmers, and those who buy what they produce (i.e. ultimately all of us) has been taken right out from under noses, and those doing the taking are defending their actions on the grounds that it would harm their investments and bottom lines (when they bother to defend it at all, most of the time they just push everyone out of the way).

Frankly, until yesterday I would've thought my fairy tale was the more plausible scenario.

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