Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Is Open a Process or an Outcome?

One of the themes of this week’s conference is defining “open.” The word “open” means different things to different people. Our host, institutional entrepreneur Brian Kahin, joked that not only should we put quotes around “open,” but perhaps we should increase/decrease the number of quotes to indicate our uncertainty over the term.

A key question for “ “ “ open ” ” ” - ness is the question of whether it is a process or an outcome. As I noted in my own paper, this ties back to the research on organization behavior, which has found that workers perceive two types of “ “ fair ” ” outcomes: procedural justice (process fairness) or distributive justices (outcome fairness).

(Of course, open-ness could just be a hollow marketing slogan, as the example I cited several years ago of the OpenVMS proprietary operating system. This was best captured at the conference by J.C. Herz, a videogame industry analyst (and DoD consultant) who had the best one-liner of the conference, likening “open” to a magic flavoring: “We will sprinkle a little ‘open’ on it and people will eat it.”)

Today, from the realm of biotech IPR came a dramatic example of these two types of openness. The occasion was the talk by Sara Boettiger of the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA). The PIPRA is an interesting animal — a Rockefeller Foundation-funded nonprofit created to help manage and disseminate the IP of university and public sector agricultural researchers — based at UC Davis. There is an obvious public good of having taxpayer-supported agricultural research be used to improve crop yields in developing countries.

Boettiger used the hypothetical example of the perfect AIDS vaccine to illustrate the gap between what I call openness in process and outcome. Suppose someone discovers the vaccine, and puts it in the public domain? It would still require millions of dollars to produce and administer that vaccine to the [more than 500 million] residents of sub-Saharan Africa.

She then briefly summarized how this was handled with the polio vaccine, whose inventor, Jonas Salk, famously told Edward R. Murrow “There is no patent. Can you patent the sun?" Boettiger showed that it took a considerable amount of private money from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (created by FDR, now known as the March of Dimes) to fund the research and manufacturing, as well as volunteer efforts (with schoolchildren as subjects) to conduct and analyze the trials.

Such nonprofit funding and volunteer effort are appropriate for something of such urgent and noble purpose. For more prosaic purposes, we have the volunteer efforts of creating Wikipedia. But of course the vast majority of innovation resources available in our economy are generated by firms reinvesting their profits for their own private gain. (It’s called capitalism, folks).

Ironically, thanks to the quasi-monopoly of the not-very-open Windows standard, there will be nonprofit money to distribute that AIDS vaccine when the time comes.

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