February 2008

Going for open source

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On January 18th, 2008, Knowledge Commons, Delhi Science Forum, IIT Delhi, Red Hat and Sun organised a workshop on science policy for a very select group of 20 policy-makers. Participants included members of the Planning Commission, which drafts India's Five Year Plans; the National Knowledge Commission, a high-level advisory body that reports to the Prime Minister of India, the Chairman of the Board of Governors of IIT Delhi and some of the most respected scientists in the country.

The objective was to look at the Free and Open Source model of knowledge creation and examine the impact it can have on India. The highlight of the event was the session on Open Source Drug Discovery, a $34 million programme to fight diseases like tuberculosis, that are prevalent in India.

Prabir Purkayastha of the Delhi Science Forum and the brain behind the event, set the ball rolling by giving a brief overview of how the patent system evolved as a trade-off between the inventor and society, with society granting a temporary monopoly to the inventor in return for disclosure of the invention, which ensured that inventors did not take their creations to the grave. He pointed out that the era of the individual inventor is over and most innovations are now done by corporations. Prabir also pointed out that the myth about patents leading to innovations was not always true and cited the example of James Watt's patent over the steam engine which led to 30 years of stagnation. It was only after Watt's death that the efficiency of the steam engine was improved. Even during this era, collective innovation flourished as can be seen from the invention of the blast furnace and the improvements in the steam engine within the Cornish mines. He added that science is not purely for profit and the current scenario, where patents are seen as a metric of innovation could lead to a situation where sharing is hindered. This could be dangerous in areas like medicine and agriculture. In this context, the Free and Open Source model has emerged as an important paradigm that generated advances that are outside the proprietary domain. Therefore, the question in front of the group was

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