Craig Burton

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ISM: Accessibiblity vs. Ownership

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Common Lexicon Part 1: Accessibility vs. Ownership

It is often called for to generate the distinctions required as a foundation for sane and accurate discussion concerning complicated and often ambiguous topics. The topic I am addressing in this essay is the topic of Open Vs. Proprietary.

I am not insisting on your acceptance of this lexicon, I am merely suggesting that without one, we will continue to misunderstand the critical distinctions of the matter and little progress will be made. If you choose to adopt this lexicon, feel free to do so, and where appropriate, please attribute me properly as while this lexicon is completely open, I retain full intellectual property rights to the content. (I say this only to lightly poke fun and the topic at hand.)

The lexicon I have created also is the lexicon used to describe the Internet Services Model my vision of the next generation of the Internet. So I will be using the Internet Service Model terminology extensively.

This discussion is part one of a three-part discussion about the philosophy of the Internet services model. Part three will focus on Open Source and Open Source-based technology. As I continue to comment and outline on my views of the infrastructure of the Internet, these documents will provide the foundational language by which to do so.

The Internet Services Model: Philosophy
The philosophy of the Internet Services Model is broken into three main categories:

  1. Accessibility and Ownership
  2. The Role of Standards
  3. Open Source and Open Source-based technology

Distinguishing Accessibility and Ownership
There has been a collapse of understanding concerning the meaning of technology ownership and accessibility. To confound things even more, ownership and accessibility were further collapsed into the distinction of standards. For example the word “open” is often used interchangeably with the word “standard.” Sometime they are used together by describing something as “open standards.” To confound things even more, the word “proprietary” is often used to mean the opposite of both open and standard.

With the advent of the Web, the role of standards and openness has been even more emphasized. But rather than have the distinctions of ownership, accessibility, and standards clarified in the current world, they have even become more cloudy with the emergence of the “Open-Source” movement. In the current state of Web Noir we have taken the distinctions of ownership, accessibility, and standards and collapsed them into a single term Open-Source. Thus the use of “open source” has become a loaded term with different meanings for different people. Open-Source has taken on the mythical role of the term “interoperable.” While the distinctions of ownership, accessibility, and standards remain collapsed, there is no point of reference to understand the real meaning of these terms.

To begin clarifying these matters, The Craig Burton Technology Matrix shown in Figure Three has two axes. The vertical axis of the matrix distinguishes accessibility. One top of the axis is completely “open” accessibility. On the other end of the accessibility matrix is “closed” accessibility. The horizontal axis distinguishes ownership. On the left hand side of the ownership axis is “proprietary” ownership. On the right hand side of the ownership axis is the ownership status of “public domain.”

The Burtonian Technology Matrix

Figure Three: The Craig Burton Technology Matrix

Note that the opposite of open is not proprietary. Proprietary is orthogonal to open. Open refers to a state of accessibility where as Proprietary refers to a state of ownership. The owner of a given technology often has the right to decide a technology’s accessibility. However, it is still very important to distinguish between ownership and accessibility.

A good example of Open/Proprietary technology is Linux. Linus Torvalds owns the Linux kernel. He owns the copyright to Linux—lock, stock, and barrel. However, Linus has opted to give up some ownership rights, rights to accessibility and redistribution. Linux is very accessible as the source code is to Linux is openly published and available for use. However, the high degree of openness of Linux does not include the forfeiture of ownership. Linux is not public domain technology. However, Linux is considered the baseline definition of technology for the so-called “Open-Source” movement.

Craig Burton Technology Matrix Definitions
The definitions of the terms Open, Closed, Proprietary, and Public Domain and their respective axes of ownership and accessibility are meant to provide some formal boundaries of understanding to effectively converse about technology and its intended usage. These definitions are not legal definitions, and are not meant to be exhaustive. These definitions are merely to be used to understand the distinctions meant by the matrix and to appropriately place any given technology in the proper location of the matrix.

The Axis of Ownership: Proprietary and Public Domain
There are legal definitions for ownership, largely described and protected through copyright and patent law. As such, the proprietor of a given technology has a “bundle” or “bill” of rights defined by these laws. Conversely, a technology in the public domain has no ownership or accessibility rights attached to it. It is freely accessible and owned by the public.

A technology is placed on the ownership axis according to number of rights the technology owner has relinquished. Rights can be given up by any number of means. In business, the definition of technology ownership rights is usually governed by a license agreement.

Often, a license agreement also specifies facets of accessibility. For example, a technology license agreement can specify the format in which the technology should be distributed: source or binary. While some of the details might be part of a technology license agreement, the distinction concerning the axis of ownership and accessibility is that a license agreement does not collapse the two axes into a single distinction. Thus if the license agreement attached to a particular piece of software includes source code and no remuneration for redistribution, it does not mean that the owner has forfeited his or her intellectual property.

A license agreement can include statements and limitations that have nothing to do with either ownership or accessibility. A license agreement can also limit accessibility for any purpose.

Again, even thought the same legal instrument is sometimes used to define both ownership and accessibility, to be able to converse about the use and intention of use concerning technology, it is critical to keep the distinctions of ownership and accessibility separate. Further, more accessibility to technology does not necessarily mean loss of ownership, to the contrary. Full ownership can be maintained anywhere along the axis of accessibility.

The Axis of Accessibility: Open and Closed
Accessibility is a tougher thing to consider. There are two distinctions of accessibility to be emphasized with the Craig Burton Technology Matrix. First is the degree of the quality of being accessible, or of admitting approach. The second is degree of openness to influence.

Freely available source code for a software program does not guarantee a high degree of accessibility nor does is guarantee a high degree of openness to influence. Indeed, accompanying documentation and usage examples may provide a much higher level of “openness” than access to the original source code. For example, I have seen source code that is written so differently, that only the author could possibly discern its operation.

While this is clearly an area of strong opinions and debate, my criteria for openness usually is determined by the willingness to make technology both available and usable for an intended purpose. The muddiness of this definition makes the “attitude” of the technology holder just as influential on the degree of openness on a given technology as almost any other factor.

While a given technology may score high on openness for the accessibility of source code, it can be moved down the scale of accessibility based on the “attitude” of the technology provider.

Placing technology on the open axis then becomes more subjective than the ownership axis. Despite this, I have found that an informed group spots a technology on the axis very accurately. Indeed, because of the influences on the openness of technology, the spot on the axis for one group can be significantly different than it is for another group.

When placing a technology on the open access, it is critical to consider the audience and the provider to achieve accuracy.

The next installment will consider the Role of Standards.