Saturday, March 26, 2011


Open Source, Open Format – Allahabad High Court Experience
(Summary: This post explains importance open source and open format. It also explains why Allahabd High court uses them. 
 This talk was delivered by Justice Yatindra Singh, judge Allahabad High Court at IIIT, Hyderabad on 20 March 2011. 
The pdf format of talk can be downloaded from here)

नमस्ते, and a very good morning to all of you.

It is a privilege and honour to be here in this premier institute of information technology.

Is there a place, 'where penguins fly'? Or am I making it up.

To tell you the truth, the title is not original: I am not the first one to use it. It was earlier used about three years ago. At that time, the morning edition of British newspapers reported that while filming on King George Island, some 750 miles south of the Falkland Islands, the BBC Camera crew discovered a colony of Adélie penguins that could fly. The programme presenter had said:
'We'd been watching the penguins and filming them for days, without a hint of what was to come. But then the weather took a turn for the worse. It was quite amazing. Rather than getting together in a huddle to protect themselves from the cold, they did something quite unexpected, that no other penguins can do.'

The newspapers from the BBC sources had also reported,
'The film reveals nature's stunning glory exciting and unexpected ways, so much so that it defies belief. Not only did it create a vivid and emotional experience for the viewer, it also illustrated just how bold and simple Darwin's idea of natural selection was. The BBC viewers would be able to see that the penguins not only taking flight from the Antarctic wastes, but flying to the thousands of miles to the Amazonian rainforest to find winter sun.'
There was a BBC footage that showed penguins flying. This was to be, a part of its new natural history series, 'Miracles of Evolution'.

Here's the footage from the BBC

Nevertheless the penguins are a group of aquatic, flightless birds living almost exclusively in the southern hemisphere, especially in Antarctica; their wings are useless for flight: they have become flippers. They are well adapted to aquatic life. Their white belly and dark backs camouflages them. A predator in the sea looking them up from below has difficulty distinguishing between a white penguin belly and the reflective water surface. The dark back camouflages them from above.

The date this title appeared in the morning edition of British newspapers was 1st April 2008. Alas, it was a fools' day prank and not true :-( But I am not repeating that prank today.

Linux symbol

 At some places, penguin does fly and Allahabad High Court is one of them. Penguin is an official symbol of Linux. Our court is a success story of Linux and open source applications. Penguin does fly here.

I am proud to say that our website says,
'Allahabad High Court has taken a policy decision to work in Open Source Software and use open standards

Our Website is also best viewed in Firefox.'
Many ask us, why do we do so?

The beginning of the last century witnessed the emergence of a semi-clad Indian, referred to as 'half naked Fakir' by Winston Churchill. His 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 are, after all, everything’. 
His name was Mohandas Karamchandra Gandhi – known to the World as Mahatma Gandhi, father of the Indian nation.

Gandhi's philosophy is deep rooted in law too. Lord Denning, one of the greatest judge of 20th century, in R Vs IRC Exparte Rossminster Ltd 1979 (3) All ELR 385 held,
‘But it is fundamental in our law that the means that are adopted ... should be lawful means. A good end does not justify bad means.'  (See Endnote-1 also)
In today's World,
  • The end is dissemination, communication, and retrieval of information; and
  • The means are, how to achieve it, implement it; the kinds of software to use, the kinds of standards to adopt, the kind of formats to employ?

The software consists of two parts
  • Source code; and
  • Object code.
Computers only understand ‘machine language’ or ‘machine code’ i.e. instructions that consist of a series of 0s and 1s. In the earlier days, a computer programme used to be written directly in machine language by punching a card. The punched slot or un-punched slot indicated requisite information to the computer. However, the process was slow and tedious. Such a programme, although intelligible to the computer, was virtually unintelligible to anyone except an equally skilled programmer.

Nowadays, computer programmes are written in high level computer languages using compact English words. This can be understood by humans though not by the computers. This is known as the source code.

The languages also have a programme called compiler and with its help, source code is compiled into the language that computers can understand. This is called object code or machine code. This runs the computer or any application therein.

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 provide authors with the right to authorise or to prohibit commercial rental of at least computer programmes and cinematographic works. This has also been so provided in our laws under Section 14(b) of the Copyright Act and now in our country, as well as in almost all other countries in the World, the object code is protected as copyright.

Protection—Source code
Source code is a kind of description. Copyright lies in the description and source code of a computer programme—being description—is a literary work within the meaning of Copyright Act. If it is not published then it is protected as a trade secret. In case it is published it is protected as a copyright and it may also be protected as a patent.

Copylefted, Free, and Gpled software
Everyone is not using Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) to hoard rights in the software. Some are using them in such a way that no one is able to hoard them. Using copyright, they are doing just the opposite. It is for this reason it is called copylefting. This happens if software has the following conditions:
  1. The software is royalty  free and no fee is charged for the same;
  2. The source code is disclosed;
  3. There is freedom to modify the software; and
  4. 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. General public licence (GPL) contains  conditions that copylefts a software. Software, under a GPL licence, is also known as GPLed software.

Open Source Software (OSS)
The philosophy of copylefted conveyed an anti-business message. Though, this is not so: it is merely a way of doing business. In the late 1990's, a group of free software enthusiast got together in California and started a consortium – called Open Source Initiative (OSI). They also drafted ten guidelines and if the license or conditions under which the software has been released satisfies these guidelines then they called it Open Source Software (OSS). At present, sixty seven licenses have been identified as satisfying these ten conditions.

Among the  ten conditions, the three important ones are,
  1. The software is royalty  free and no fee is charged for the same;
  2. The source code is disclosed; and
  3. There is freedom to modify the software.

The guidelines do not contain the fourth condition of Free Software. Thus OSS is more comprehensive. All Copylefted is OSS but all OSS is not Copylefted software. The sphere of OSS is bigger than Copylefted/  free/ GLed software.

Anyone can copy, distribute or modify OSS. No one infringes copyright by merely using or modifying it. This does not mean that it has no copyright. 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 also been so held by the US Court of Appeals for the federal circuit in Robert Jcobson Vs Matthew Katzer on 13. 8 2008.

Advantages of OSS
Here are its advantages; some of them played in our mind for shiting over to open source:
  1. No Copyright infringment in using or modifying it:  There is copyright in the OSS. In fact, OSS is copylefted by using copyright. However in terms of the license conditions, there is no  copyright infringment in merely using or modifying it. Copyright infingement due to unauthorised use is a global issue and adopting OSS will obviate this aspect of it.
  2. Lesser cost: OSS is royaltee free; it does not cost anything. The only cost is for services or support for the same. Utilising OSS will reduce the cost of any project. The cost reduction has an impact on the proprietary software too. In order to be competitive, their cost is being reduced.
  3. Service sector: Due to historical reason, our English and Maths have always been a plus point. These subjects are necessary for providing services in the IT sector. Adoptions of OSS may open new job opportunities in the service sector.
  4. Customise software: Software can be modified, if source code is disclosed and there is permission to modify the same. In OSS, source code is disclosed and there is permission to modify the software. This permits everyone to participate in the software movement and also provides opportunity to everyone to customise software. Today, OSS is not only available in our national language but also in almost all regional languages; its adoption offers us opportunity to take IT movement to the grass root level.
  5. Avoids IPR:  It is possible to have IPR in the modified software created from OSS but the authors of any OSS do not claim any IPR in the OSS in anyone using and modifying it  (though there are some conditions). This is clear from the fact that they permit everyone to use/ modify/ distribute it without any royalty. This not only leads to reduction in the IT cost but avoids future conflicts in IPR area.
  6. Stable: Virus is nothing but a computer programme which effects any other computer programme or computer data. In OSS there can be viruses however there have been only a few viruses in OSS. This is because its source code is open/ published. Experts say that it is safe and provides stable environment. This is also strengthened by the fact that Apache (an OSS) web servers are the most popular ones.
  7. Different licenses: There are many licenses that are certified by OSI. This creates some difficulties but different licenses have their advantages too. They can be adopted for different business models:
  • GPL is viral: By adopting this licence, a business model centered around programming and support services can be adopted.
  • BSD type licenses are at the other end: they permit creation of proprietary software. The Macintosh Operating System (a proprietary software) is partly based on BSD licensed code.
The other licenses lie between these two and may be chosen by the companies/software developers according to their need.

Let me explain the advantages with the help of a story from 'Panchtantra': this has common thread in all cultures. It is a story of a hare and a tortoise.


Screen-shot from the film 'The tortoise and the hare'
One day, the hare and the tortoise 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.
The hare, perturbed by the defeat, 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 the 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 it 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 everyone's strong points'.

However their were difficulties and obstacles in adopting the OSS and we overcame them. Some years ago, I was at Bhopal attending a colloquium on 'Law, Science and ethics'. The then president of India His Excellency Abdul Kalam also addressed us through video conferencing. During the question session, I asked him,
'Computers and information technology have an important role in reducing the arrears in the court as well as in helping in other areas. Broadly there are two kinds of software to do that. Proprietary and Open Source. Which one is better?'
He answered,
'First of all, I would like to clarify that the choice of proprietary vs Open software is driven by the usage and requirements of the user at the operating system level. Since, proprietary software is predominantly used at the client level; many users are familiar and comfortable with this. However, at the server level mature users choose the software as per their requirement. Open source operating system enables the development of language independent software's and also building one's own security algorithms to suit his requirement.
Indian IT industry is capable of providing a solution for the justice delivery system and its e-Governance to the justice administration on top of any proprietary or open source systems. What is important here is justice delivery system should be inter-operable system built on top of open standards such as web services.' 

The challenges and difficulties in shifting over to OSS are apparent from the President's answer. The majority is familiar with proprietary software and is trained in it. The main challenge is,
  • in changing over;
  • getting used to the new environment; and
  • training the staff.

This is a vicious circle. There are difficulties in changing over and if you chosoe not to shift then you rely on proprietary software and have to pay more. Perhaps what is required is to change our perception regarding OSS and increase its awareness. We may consider the following points:
  1. The awareness regarding OSS should start from the school level: Computer education is already in the curriculum of schools and colleges. There is hardly any representation of OSS in their curriculum. Most of the topics are there from proprietary software. The operating system of computers is in proprietary software. Curriculum of schools  and colleges should have compulsory courses on OSS and the computers should have operating system in OSS.
  2. Greater awareness among the Experts: There should be long term policy of training experts in open source. Scarcity of experts inhibit use of open soruce.
  3. Build Service Sector:  Indian companies may not be successful in new open source venture: it may still be in the realm of the western world. Nevertheless there is one field where we can do well and that is the service field. This sector should be strengthened. In fact this is the best way to earn money in open source.
  4. Utilisation of grant: The government gives grants for purchasing computers and for different projects. The government grants may be utilised for purchasing computers having OSS operating system. Apart from operating systems there are applications. Many applications are on OSS and run on all kinds of operating systems including the proprietary ones. Even if the operating system is the proprietary one, then at least it should have applications that are on OSS.
  5. Linux/OSS Compatible: The biggest challenge is finding drivers for the hardware. Irrespective of the operating systems or the applications programmes on a computer,  the government while purchasing computers may ensure that the hardware is Linux/OSS compatible. This will ensure that the manufacturers are making drivers available in the market. And if the need arises, the computers may be made dual boot or on Linux/OSS.
  6. Exclusive OSS cell: It is true that we are leading IT community in the world but many IT experts  in government organisations work exclusively with proprietary software. It will be a good idea to create separate cells in government and semi government departments to develop applications exclusively in OSS. 
  7. Solution in OSS first: A policy decision may be taken to find solutions of projects first in OSS and in case it is not possible only then it may be sought in the proprietary software.
The answer of our former president, not only narrates the difficulties in shifting over to open source, but also emphasises the importance of open standards. According to him the important thing in judicial system is that it should be inter-operable system built on top of open standards such as web services. Let's consider about open standards and formats.

Formats are particular way of encoding or a method of storing information so that a computer programme or a device may, understand, reproduce, and, if the need be, render it for modifications.  
Formats may be proprietary. They could be,
  • Secret and protected as a trade secret; or
  • Published and yet protected as a patent (as was the gif format for images).
This is not true for open formats. They are,
  1. Documented and published - sufficient to implement them in any computer programme or device.
  2. Made available irrevocably to everyone without any royalty or fee.
  3. Maintained by a neutral body, where decisions are taken with consensus or majority thus catering to the needs of all.

Advantages of Open Format
Open formats, not only avoid monopoly but encourage healthy competition. Information technology has best flourished in the open formats/ standards: the Internet, the web, the protocol transfer are all based on open formats/ standards. Apart from other advantages,
  1. There is no fear of patents or licensing;
  2. Open source software supporting ODF exists for every operating system; they work across the operating systems. 
  3. The files can never be lost as they will always be accessible.
  4. They can be implemented in any software making the users true owners of their files.

Let me explain the importance of open format with the help of another story—this time a science fiction by Jayant V. Narlikar. He is a leading Astrophysicist in the World. He has worked with Fred Hoyle and like him writes science fiction. He has written a novel by the name of 'The Return of Vaman'.

The novel revolves around three characters: an archaeologist, a physicist, and a computer scientist. The physicist wanted to experiment with gravity and a deep hole was being dug. In the process, the team came across a plaque first  and then a cube. They could neither understand the script written on the plaque nor the figures on the cube. It was a perfect cube of unknown substance. They knew that it came from some advanced civilisation. They decided to open the cube but could not make head or tail out of it.

There was a figure on the cube showing two elephants pulling the cube in the opposite direction without any success. They were reminded of an experiment done in the seventeenth century by the German scientist Otto Von Guericke in Magdeburg Germany.  He had joined the two copper hemispheres of 51 cm diameter and pumped the air outside. Thereafter 8 horses on each side could not pull them apart.

The team realised that the air from the cube has been removed.  A thin hole was drilled, the air entered inside, and the cube opened instantly.

The Magdeburg experiment by Guericke

It was a time capsule, informing about the advance civilisation that existed twenty thousand years ago. There was no indication as to how it came to an end or what happened to it. The time capsule also informed them how to make an advanced computer. They make it and name it 'Guru'—the teacher.

'Guru' tells them how to make a meter high, advanced Robot. This robot is like the robot 'Andrew' (starring Robin Williams) in the science fiction film  'Bicentennial Man' (based on the story 'The Bicentennial Man' and the novel 'The Positronic Man' written by Isaac Asimov).

The robot is named 'Vaman' (वामन) after fifth, out of ten  reincarnation of God Vishnu (see Endnote-2).  Vaman, (like Andrew), is extremely advanced;  learns quickly and is able to take independent decisons.  But his intentions are different. 'Vaman' keeps on requesting his creators to teach him how to replicate itself so that humanity may be served better. This was not being done. The team was observing caution as there was no trace of the advanced civilisation. A conspiracy was hatched: Vaman gets itself stolen by others on the promise that it will be taught replication.

The answer to the mystery, as to how that advanced civilisation perished, lay in the plaque that was also found. But no one could understand the script. It was only when the script was deciphered that the reason could be known—too many Vamans serving humanity and what happens if they go on strike. Utopia, if there is one, is end of life. It became imperative to destroy the Vaman so that it may not replicate itself.

This is the broad plot of the novel but the reason that I narrated this story is,
  • In the physical world, the information lies in the script. Loose the ability to read the script: you loose the information.
  • In the digital world the information lies in the format. If the format is closed then the information may be lost forever.
It is better to store information in open format: it is only then we can be sure of owning information.

Open source and open format, 
  • Consolidate strong points;
  • Invite others to participate in its development;
  • Make us master of our information.
  • They do provide us with wings—with them not only the penguins but we can also soar.

I started my talk with Gandhi's quote and a question why do we work in open source and open format. Let me answer it with his quote again,
'Be the change that you want to see in the world.'

Endnote-1: The US Supreme Court in TVA Vs Hill (57 L.Ed 2nd 117) stopped the construction of a dam over the Little Tennessee River. The reason was extinction of an endangered snail darter, a three-inch tannish coloured fish, found in the river. Traditionally Attorney General of US appears only once in his term. Cases are argued in the court by the Solicitor General. Griffin B Bell, the then Attorney General, had chosen to appear in this case. He showed the fish in the court. According to him, the dam was completed and only for this three-inch fish the doors of the dam could not be closed. The congress had to amend the law to get over the judgement. Snail darters, which had previously lived only on the Little Tennessee River, were transplanted to the Hiwassee River. It was only then they could complete the constructions. The court while stopping the construction quoted the following passage of Bolds (A man for all seasons Act I Page 147) with approval.
‘The law Roper the law I know what's legal not what's right And will stick to what’s legal- I am not God. The currents and endless of rights and wrong which you find such plain sailing. I cannot navigate I am not a voyager. I am a forester in the thickness of law-what would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil. And when the last law was down and Devil turned around on you, where would you hide, Roper the laws all being flat. This country’s planned thick with the laws from coast to coast-Man’s law not God's and if you cut them down-Do you really think you can stand upright in the winds that would blow then-Yes I would give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.' 

Endnote-2: Hindu mythology talks about reincarnation of Gods. God Vishnu has ten important reincarnations, nine have already taken birth. Vaman was his fifth. The tenth and his last reincarnation Kalki, is supposed to take birth after 84 thousand years. With him, the cycle of Universe is predicted to end and a new cycle of creation and destruction is to begin.

Vaman was God Visnu's fifth reincarnation. The legend for this reincarnation is that demon King Bali conquered the Earth, Heavens and banished Indra from there. He in his fifth avtaar, Vamana freed the Earth from terror of demon Bali and restored Indra's authority over the heavens.

Vaman mapping earth and heaven; third on Bali's head
God Vishnu disguised himself as a dwarf Brahmin, that is why in this avatar, he was known as Vamana (it means dwarf). He requested three steps of land from King Bali to live there, which Bali gave, against the warning from his Guru Sukracharya. Vamana, the Supreme God, then grew so huge that he could cover everything from heaven to earth, earth to lower worlds in two simple steps. King Bali unable to fulfil the promise of three paces of land to the Supreme God, offered his head for the third step. Vamana placed his foot on King Bali's head and gave him immortality for his benevolence.

Will open source and open format, like Vaman—the fifth incarnation of God Vishnu—demolish the hording of technology like the demon king Bali, in the e-society?  If they can make Penguins fly then this may be so.

Endnote-3: The first, second, fourth and the last pictures are from Wikipedia.    

(Computerisation at the High Court level)
1. The following applications are running on the open source platform in the High court:
(i) Web Server System
OS: Linux
Server software: Apache HTTP server
(ii) Mail server system.
OS: Linux
Mail server software: Qmail
Webmail package: SquirrelMail
(iii) Web Diary: A web-based application to manage event database.
Server software: Apache HTTP server
Java solutions: Apache Tomcat
Database: MySQL
(iv) Library System: A web-based library information system (under development).
Server software: Apache HTTP server
Java solutions: Apache Tomcat
Database: MySQL
(v) Service record system: A web-based service record system containing service profiles of personnel related with the Court (under development).
Server software: Apache HTTP server
Java solutions: Apache Tomcat
Database: MySQL
(vi) Recruitment System:
OS: Linux
Server software: Apache HTTP Server
Java solutions: Apache Tomcat
Database: MySQL

2. Allahabad High Court ( is the first and the only High Court in the country to commission its own Web server and Mail server in its premises in the year 2005. At the Allahabad High Court, high end servers, storage area network (SAN), routers, firewall, and more than 1200 computers/ thin-clients are installed.

3. Hindi is our mother tongue and the language of the masses. Our website can be viewed in Hindi as well. It was the first official website to use Unicode Hindi on its website.

4. Servers of the Allahabad High Court and its bench at Lucknow are connected through 2 Mbps virtual private network link (VPN).

5. Servers in which judicial work is being done are running under Linux OS. More than 1200 desktops and thin clients on Linux OS are installed in the judges' chambers, courtrooms, filing counters, cause list section, computerised copying centre, computerised information centre, judicial and administrative sections. They are connected through local area network (LAN). The private secretaries/ bench secretaries (PS/BS) and other staff of the Court feed/ retrieve information from high end servers on the real time basis.

6. Desktops and laptops at the Allahabad High Court are provided with Open suite, Firefox web browser, Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail application software and Mozilla Sunbird e-calendar application software.

7. Judgements/ orders of the Allahabad High Court and its bench at Lucknow are typed by the Private Secretaries/ Personal Assistants (PS/ PA) on computer systems/ thin clients installed in the Chambers of judges/ courtrooms after the dictation using indigenously developed customised software (e-Legalix). The judgement is automatically converted to pdf format and uploaded on the centralised server after being signed by the judges.

8. The judgement/ order once uploaded cannot be changed. This helps in issuing certified copy from of the judgement/orders as soon as they are uploaded on the server.  This is a web enabled programme and is independent of operating system. It is build over open standards though for convenience and neatness the judgements/ orders are uploaded in the pdf format. The judgements/ orders are instantly reflected on the official Web-Site of the High Court and can be accessed by the public.

9. Touch screen information kiosks have been established at the boundary of the High Court for providing information with regard to case status, status of preparation of certified copies of the Judgements/ orders for the advocates/ public. 

10. Video conferencing facility has been established at Allahabad High Court and its Bench at Lucknow and it is now convenient to have regular meetings of Administrative Committee and other Committees of the court where judges of both places are members.  Video conferencing  is being done through VPN link.

11. An Integrated court information system (digital display system) has been installed at Allahabad High Court and its bench at Lucknow, with a view to provide information to the advocates/ litigants regarding the serial numbers of cases being taken up in various courts through small display boards in front of the court rooms as well as big size display boards at prominent locations of the court building. Serial numbers including title of the cases and the names of the advocates are displayed immediately on press of button by the Bench Secretary from his terminal. Information about the serial number of the case being taken up in any five courts at a time can also be known through SMS by the advocates/ litigants.

12. All new computers at Allahabad High court and district courts in UP are being provided with Linux as operating system.
(Computerisation at the District Court level)
Computerisation project of Subordinate Courts of UP was taken up by the NIC with the financial assistance of Central Government in the year 1998 in phases.

Now under the E-Court project, Computer Hardware, Software and other related equipments have been provided by NIC (Implementing agency of the Project) out of the funds sanctioned by Central Government. Laptops on Linux and laser printers have been provided to Judicial Officers and this has been very helpful in getting them oriented towards the usefulness of ICT in Justice delivery System.

1. Site Preparation: Out of the 71 District Courts the site preparation work has been completed in  57 District Courts.  In 11 District Courts the work is in progress and is in the last stage of completion and in 2 District Courts the work has not started due to non-availability of the funds from Government. Out of the 65 outlying courts fund for site preparation has been received for 39 outlying courts and the work has been completed in 23 outlying courts and in remaining outlying courts the work is in last stage of completion.

2. Computer Hardware: Computer Hardware provided to all the 70 District Courts of U.P. (71st District Court created at Later stage) under the E-Court project in May 2009. Desktops have been installed in 69 District Courts (except Chandauli where Site is not proper for installation of Computers as District Court is running on very old premises and rented building).

3. Servers: Servers have been installed in 67 district courts. Hardware installation is fully complete in 27 Districts. For the remaining District Courts, installation of thin clients is pending.
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