Clark, Dean and the GPL

During all the Tuesday-morning quarterbacking that’s going on about the Iowa Democratic caucuses, I checked out a comment by Tacitus about the fact that no matter what the outcome of the primaries, the Dems will come out stronger on the Internet:

“Almost without realizing it, the Democrats will emerge from this election cycle with a seriously good and adaptable internet machine.” (Link via Henry Copeland)

This question interested me, as someone involved in Free Software. I’m not sure whether either Democratic or Republican candidates really understand what is going on with the General Public License, the contract between the software developer and user that underpins the open source movement, but I’ll bet their technical people do.

Both Wesley Clark and Howard Dean’s technical organizations have been using existing open source software, altering it to their own purposes. And when the need arises, they are creating their own software and releasing it under open source licenses.

Mostly this comes down to content management, automatic systems for updating the archipelago of websites connected to their campaigns. In Dean’s case, the DeanSpace team has been making alterations to the Drupal content management system. The Clark TechCorps has been working on the Kuro5hin Scoop content management system that they’ve heavily altered. [Disclosure: the foundation I work for creates open source software, including a content management system for publications.]

What’s cool about open source software is how it changes the rules. Normally, such copy-and-pasting would be considered intellectual property theft. But in the open source world, these activities are not only allowed, they’re usually encouraged.

The only catch is this: when you make changes to an open source software project, you have to make your changes available too.

So my question is this: How will the Clark and Dean campaigns react if Karl Rove’s programmers get hold of their code and start using it for the Bush campaign? The GPL doesn’t say anything about the user’s political orientation – there are no restrictions whatsoever on who can and can’t use the software That’s why they call it Free, dummy! -ed].

Like politics, open source can make strange bedfellows. Witness the member list of the Apache Software Foundation, makers of Apache, the most popular web server in the world. Many of the members work for companies who are deeply competitive. Paradoxically, they have managed to not only define a common need, but to solve it.

Could such collaboration ever happen between Democratic and Republican candidates? If it did, I’d venture to say that the software that emerged would be stronger. Which would mean that the voter would get better information, and would be better served by the candidate and his or her organization. If that was the case, voters of all persuasions would benefit.

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