Home / Opinion / Columns /  A redux of the Linux movement in open source pharma

Thirty years ago, a 21-year-old student at the University of Helsinki put out a message on a bulletin board, “i am doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big or professional..)," and asked for feedback. Little did he know that these few words would be the beginning of a gigantic revolution that would transform digital life around the world. This was the birth of the free operating system that came to be known as Linux, named after the kid, Linus Torvalds, who invented it. It is the basis of all the open-source free software that powers most computers around us. For instance, all the world’s top 500 supercomputers run on Linux. More than 70% of mobile handsets run Android, which is free and open source, developed by Google and inspired by Linux. About 95% of public cloud services use an open-source hosting platform called Kubermetes, also part of the Linux revolution. Linux or its derivatives are in most embedded systems, automotive software, entertainment consoles, gaming, aviation and even high-end applications, including possibly space and defence. The ubiquity of Linux and its descendants is astonishing for something which is essentially free and developed by a community of tens of thousands of developers driven merely by their passion, not monetary gains. The free software is distributed under the Gnu Public License version 2 (GPLv2), whose key condition is that the complete source code be made available to the user, and any modification or improvement done by a user is to be ‘given back’ on the same terms to the open-source community. There are thousands of businesses that run on free software and are profitable. As all adherents to the free software dogma will tell you, it is free as in freedom (to modify) and not as in ‘free beer’. Thus, free software is not anathema to making profits. But the core ideology is allergic to patents and intellectual property rights, which ‘lock up’ knowledge, rather than keep it open for further improvements and creativity. Indeed, one maxim of free software developers is that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow", famously articulated by Eric Raymond. That is, all bugs get ironed out if the whole community is working on the software. The beta tester is the most valuable resource, and advocates of free software believe in frequent releases of newer versions, thus making it robust and stable.

Linus began his hobby project out of necessity, because he could not afford to pay for a Unix operating system to try out on his personal computer. But through his tinkering and by readily sharing his source code, he unleashed a movement. Maybe he accidentally stumbled onto a deep truism about creativity.

To be fair, the free software movement predates Linux by at least a decade. Its early diehard champion was Richard Stallman of MIT. For Stallman, not sharing the source code and not allowing users to modify stuff was a “crime". But his essentially centralized way of controlling the releases of free software ultimately stalled the idea’s progress and widespread acceptance. It was Linux which truly turbocharged the movement, with its highly decentralized approach to building software. It was much more democratic and non-hierarchical. Eric Raymond wrote about this contrast in a famous essay that became a bestseller, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Happily, the two are very much intertwined and married, and referred to as Gnu/Linux or simply Linux.

This column space is too short to bring out the romance of the Linux movement and what it spawned. It is generous in allowing various ‘flavours’ of distribution to co-exist, of which a popular one is called Ubuntu, which means ‘compassion and humanity’ in Zulu. The programming languages R and Python, used heavily in the spheres of analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, visualization and econometrics, are also open source, linked to the GPLv2 licence.

The Linux movement gives us pause to think about intellectual property rights (IPRs) in general. At the heart of these are patents, which refer to the granting of temporary monopoly rights, so as to recoup the cost of developing the IP, be it software, a chip design, a drug or a vaccine. This crushing of competition to protect profits has always been a contentious issue, as there is mounting evidence that patents do not lead to a rise in productivity and further innovations. While patent filings have grown exponentially, innovation and productivity have not. And it has simply led to patent hoarding and trolling, plus endless litigation, especially in the field of pharmaceuticals. The saying here goes, ‘No patents, no drugs.’ A new drug now needs at least a billion dollars for development, but 80% of fixed costs are on phase 3 trials, which are in the nature of public goods. Surely, these costs can be reimbursed to parties through competitive bidding by the government. As economists Michele Boldrin and David Levine have argued in their essay, The Case Against Patents, the downstream social cost of monopoly pricing is most severe for life-saving drugs.

Indeed, since 2015, there has been an Open Source Pharma movement against restrictive patents. It supports the compulsory licensing of patents on life-saving drugs. According to Dr. Manica Balasegaram of the Access Campaign, open source pharma is against a protectionist proprietary silo-based approach, and promotes a culture of free and critical thinking, openness to ideas and sharing of information. Sounds similar to Linux, does it not? Happy 30th anniversary!

Ajit Ranade is chief economist at Aditya Birla Group.

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