Thursday, September 25, 2008


(Summary: This paper explains what is open source and open format; why they should be used; and talks about some good open source programmes that run on Windows.

Text of Talk delivered by Justice Yatindra Singh on 20.09.2008 on the Software Freedom Day at the University of Allahabad, Allahabad.)

Two of my finest years have been spent roaming around the corridors of the science faculty of the Allahabad University. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to renew those memories. I am happy to be here to talk about open source,  open formats, and some popular open source programmes  on windows.

Mahatma Gandhi's   philosophy was,
'Means are more important than the end:  it is only with the right means that the desired end will follow.'
To the charge that  'means are after all means', he would say,
‘Means, after all, are everything’.

Gandhi's philosophy is still relevant today. In the context of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT), the end is dissemination and communication of information and the means are
  • How to achieve and implement it?
  • What kind of software to use?
  • What kind of standard to employ?
  • What kind of format to adopt?
Open source and open formats are good means and are key to the future. Let's see, why is it so. 

The software consists of two parts
  • Source code; and
  • Object code/ machine code.
Nowadays, computer programmes are written in high level computer languages using compact English words. This part is known as source code. The computer languages also have a programme called compiler. It compiles source code into machine language so that computers may understand it and run computer applications.  This is called object code or machine code.

Protection - Object Code
There was some debate as to how the object code is protected but Article 11 of the TRIPS mandates its members to protect it, as a copyright. The object code is so protected in our country as well as almost all other countries. In some countries, it is also protected as patents but this is debatable.

Protection - Source code
Source code is a kind of a description. Copyright lies in the description and source code of a computer programme—being description—is a literary work within the Copyright Act. 

Writers have a right to publish their work; they may or may not do so. No one else can publish their work. If it is published without the author's consent or if an unpublished work is stolen and published as someone else’s work—it is illegal. Nevertheless an independent work cannot infringe any other work unless the other work is published.

Trade secret or ‘undisclosed information’ is a secret that offers an opportunity to obtain an advantage over competitors who do not know it. A work may purposely be not published as it is sought to be protected as a trade secret.

The object code of every software is available; it runs the computer or an application: it is always protected as a copyright (sometimes as a patents too).

The source code may or may not be published. In case it is published, it is protected as a copyright. In proprietary software, the source code is generally not published; it is a secret. In such an event, it is protected as undisclosed information or trade secret.

Copyleft and Open Source Software
Everyone is not using copyrights to hoard rights in software. Some are using copyrights so that no one is able to hoard them. They are copylefting it. In order to copyleft a software, the owner publishes/ discloses the source code; states that it is copyrighted; and grants permission to everyone to freely use, modify, and redistribute the computer programme in the original or modified form only if the similar permission is granted in redistribution or distribution of the modified version. Thus, copylefting ensures that:
  • The software is royalty  free;
  • The source code is disclosed;
  • There is freedom to modify the software; and
  • Anyone who redistributes the software, with or without changes, must pass along similar freedom to others i.e. disclose the source code and permit further modification.

Copylefted software is also called free software as there is freedom to modify it. In fact the term 'Free Software' was used much before the term open source software was used. It all started in 1984 when Richard Stallman started the GNU (a recursive acronym for GNU is Not Unix) project under the umbrella organisation of Free Software Foundation (FSF).

Richard Stallman, with the help of lawyers, drafted the General public licence (GPL). It contains a condition that copylefts software. Most of the software under the GNU Project are under GPL. Software, under a GPL licence, is also known as GPLed software. 

Software—where the source code is published—may or may not be copylefted and there can be degrees of copyleftness: it all depends on the terms of the licence under which it is released.

The philosophy of FSF conveyed an anti business message. In late 1990's, free software enthusiasts got together to start 'Open Source Initiative' a non profit public organisation. It has come out with ten guidelines. Software satisfying the guidelines is known as 'Open Source Software'(OSS). Software fulfilling the guidelines are marked OSI Certified and are called Open Source Software.  OSI has also created the following  graphic certification mark to mark it as an open source software.
(OSI Mark)

Anyone can copy, distribute or modify open source software. No one infringes copyright by merely using or modifying it. This does not mean that it is not copyrighted. There is copyright in OSS. In fact, OSS is copylefted by using copyright. Anyone who uses OSS contrary to the conditions governing the license not only breaches the contract but also infringes the copyright. This has been so held recently by US Federal Appellate Court in Robert Jacobsen vs. Matthew Katzer and Kamind Associates, Inc.

In the context of technology, standards broadly means specifications. In the digital world, they relate to the format. 

Format is a particular way of encoding information or a method of storing information so that a computer programme or a device may understand, reproduce, and render it for modification.  

Formats or the way of encoding information could be proprietary: it could be secret and protected as a trade secret or could be published and yet protected as a patent (as was the gif format for images). However, this is not true with the Open Formats. They are,
  • Documented and published - sufficient to implement them in any computer programme or device;
  • Made available to everyone without any royalty or fee;
  • Maintained by neutral body with consensus or majority decisions so as to cater to the needs of all.

The Tortoise and the Hare
The philosophy of Open Source and Open formats reminds me of a story from 'Panchtantra'.

The tortoise and the hare were friends. One day, they decided to race against each other. The hare obviously took the lead; he thought of relaxing and went off to sleep. The tortoise, walking slowly but steadily, overtook the hare and won the race. The moral is,
'Slow but steady wins the race'.
In recent time, some new chapters have been added to this story.

The hare was perturbed by the defeat. He asked the tortoise  to race again. This time he did not take rest and won the race easily. The moral is,
'It is better to be fast and reliable'.
But, this is not the end of the story.

After some days,  the tortoise asked the hare to race once again but  with a condition that the course will be chosen by him. The hare, who was confident of his victory, gave him free hand. This time the course included a river. The hare ran up to the river and then stopped. The tortoise came and swam across the river to win the race. The moral is,
'Every one has weak and strong points – play on your strong side'.
However, the story still does not end here. 

After some days, the tortoise and the hare repeated the race over the same course but the rules were changed. This time they decided run as a team. On the ground, the hare carried the tortoise on his back and on the river,  the tortoise carried the hare on his back. The result was that both of them reached the destination quickly, saved time and enjoyed the race too. The moral is,
'It is best to consolidate strong points.'  

This is, what the open source and open formats are about. They,
  • Consolidate strong points;
  • Use the IPR to prevent the hoarding of technology;
  • Invite  others to participate in its development.
It is 'Make love, not war' in atypical way. They are good means and are key  to the future.

Before I finish, let me explain the software that are being distributed in the CD. All of them are Windows based. Cafe Hindi and Sun ODF plugin are freeeware; they are not required in Linux but are useful in Windows. Rest of them  (except for Infra recorder) run in the Linux too. It can export a document into pdf forman. Its latest beta version can modify pdf files too.
  1. Audacity    (GPL version 2): It is programme for recording audio files. It permits editing of the audio files too. One can copy, paste, or mix the audio files.
  2. suite (LGPL License): It provides bundle of software that are used in an office. It is similar to MS office suite and contains similar programmes.  The default format of different programmes of this suite are  Open Document Format maintained by Organisation for the Advancement of Structured information Standards (OASIS). It was approved by the International Standardisation Organisation (ISO) on May 3, 2006. suite can open and save files in default format of MS Office suite or Power Point Presentation as well as in any other format too. It can export any file into pdf format. In the latest version (at present Beta) pdf files can also be modified.
  3. Cafe Hindi (Freeware): Hindi is being standardised in Unicode. Cafe Hindi  is a window based tool for typing Unicode Hindi offline. It provides  Phonetic, Remington, Inscript and Shusha Keyboard.
  4. Sun ODF Plugin (Freeware): This plugin is for MS Office so that ODF files may be read and saved in the MS Office. 
  5. Firefox, Thunderbird, and Sunbird (all from Mozilla Foundation) (Mozilla Public License):  Firefox is a web browser: Window equivalent to Internet Explorer. Thundrbird is a program for sending and receiving emails. It can perform functions of Outlook express. Mozilla Sunbird is e-manager and manages C-calender. It is similar to Microsoft outlook and can be integrated with Thunderbird or Firefox.
  6. GIMP (GPL License): It is GNU Image Manipulation Programme and is suitable for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring. It is similar to photoshop.
  7. Infra Recorder    (GPL-2 License): It is programme for burning CDs and DVDs. It works in the windows only. However, K3B is a similar programme that works in linux.
  8. VLC Media Player (GPL-2 License): It is media player. It can play audio and video files. Mplayer is another open source programme similar to it. It can play files of mp3 format (a proprietary format) as well as ogg format which is open format.
Do try them in Windows. They are easy to install and use: in fact easier then the other closed source programmes. Many say that they are not as good as windows. I do not wish to debate about it but they are sufficient for our needs. They are not only open but are free of cost and can be used without any guilt of copyright violation. Their functionality in Linux is similar.  There is no reason that you can't run them on Linux.  And you know, it is only in Linux that penguins can fly. You don't believe it – see for yourself :-)

All photographs are via Wikipedia


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