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He Changes Minds

Bob Young and the Red Hat Center hope to empower change agents in every industry, from every country, for every consumer touched by technology.

They can’t vote. They can’t strike. Some of them can’t even read yet. But in a decade or two, today’s youth will run the world. And by then it may be too late. By then, according to one technology crusader, corporate self-interest and political shortsightedness may have compromised their inherent rights to dream, invent, and change the world.

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Bob Young is fighting that Orwellian vision of the future. Cofounder and chairman of Red Hat Software Inc., he champions the intellectual-property rights of the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators. Young fervently believes cooperative, open collaboration — as demonstrated in the open-source technology that Red Hat distributes — is a smart way to do business, to govern countries, and to protect future entrepreneurs’ right to invent. And so he invests his time and passion in this cause and in a private foundation called the Red Hat Center, which aims to publicize and galvanize people behind the fight for free access to information. Ultimately, it also aims to reach a compromise that will both empower and protect entrepreneurs in the digital sphere and beyond.

“The next generation of innovators is being harmed, and no one’s taking that into account because the next generation can’t vote — they’re in high school, grade school, and playpens,” Young says. “When they emerge from school and want to make a genetically modified seed or to investigate the next human-genome cell, they should be guaranteed the freedom to do so.”

Roots in Transparency

If open-source technology represents a wave of change crashing over the software industry, then Red Hat is the dazzled surfer riding that crest all the way to shore.

Since Bob Young and Marc Ewing founded Red Hat Software in 1994, the North Carolina-based company has used the Linux server operating system and an army of adept volunteers to challenge the status quo. To date, nearly 1 million programmers worldwide contribute to the open-source movement by tweaking, adapting, and sharing the source code that powers up to 60% of the Internet.

Red Hat demonstrated that open-source business was smart business when it issued its IPO in 1999 — and subsequently posted annual revenues of more than $42 million. Since then, the Red Hat stock has surged and plunged — rising to $151 a share within two months of the IPO and dropping to nearly $10 a share in October. These discouraging financials have cast some doubt on the financial promise of open-source technology, but they have done little to quell Young’s enthusiasm for the open-source model.

Now, he’s expanding his revolution.

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An Attack From the Hill

Open-source evangelists have enemies in high places. In 1997 and 1998, the U.S. Congress passed two controversial cyberspace acts: the No Electronic Theft (NET) Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). These acts extend patent and copyright laws into cyberspace. The software and entertainment industries generally support these laws as protection for their traditional business models against threats like Napster. Scientists, librarians, and academics oppose the acts, claiming they ultimately hinder knowledge sharing and hamper innovation.

Supporters believe that intellectual-property patents will stimulate innovation by attracting new business to underdeveloped regions; will protect artists and innovators from plagiarism and theft, especially on the Web; and will clarify some of the confusion surrounding downloadable material on the Internet.

Young doesn’t object to patents or copyrights in essence, or to the protection of artists and innovators. But he does believe the DMCA compromises the freedom and creativity of tomorrow’s entrepreneurs because, he says, it hinders the free exchange of ideas. He cites a Thomas Jefferson essay written in 1813 that discusses intellectual and physical property protection:

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move and have our physical being, incapable of confinement, or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

“We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants,” Young says. “Every entrepreneur owes his idea to the people he studied and met in elementary school, in high school, in college, and in industry. We all build our ideas on the best ideas we can find. Now imagine if there were no more good ideas we were allowed to use.”

Open-Source Momentum

The prospect of such a grim scenario led Young and Ewing to found the Red Hat Center, a private foundation that aims to effect change in the global marketplace by promoting and advancing the open-source ideology. Specifically, Young says, “I want politicians around the world to understand that every time they extend government-granted monopolies over technology, they’re doing so at the expense of the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators — at the expense of each and every one of us.”

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It is no coincidence that the Red Hat Center advocates open-source principles that will ultimately benefit the business model of its parent company, Red Hat. The more freedom granted to software engineers and renegade coders, the more popular operating systems like Linux become, and the more revenue Red Hat can generate by selling its Linux operating systems. Still, Young insists that the issue of transparency transcends Red Hat’s bottom line.

Change will come, he says, when two things happen. First, technology consumers must understand that an alternative to the binary-only model of software distribution already exists. They must recognize that the barriers surrounding source code are unnecessary and, in some cases, harmful. “I want to see every technology user rebel,” Young says. “I want them to say, ‘I refuse to sign or accept software licenses that make me a victim of the technology I’m using.'” Second, Young believes the Red Hat Center will succeed when it’s able to influence world governments and persuade them to rethink their patent and copyright judgments.

In short, he wants the Red Hat Center to empower change agents in every industry, from every country, for every consumer touched by technology.

Chosen Change Agents

One such change agent is MetaLab — an FTP site run by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It contains one of the largest collections of information — software, music, literature, art, history and science documents, games, and more — on the Internet, created and maintained by the public, for the public. MetaLab serves more than 2 million files per day to scientists, programmers, and educators worldwide and stands as a model for free-information sharing. In September, the Red Hat Center announced a five-year collaboration with UNC that began with a $4 million gift earmarked for the launch of a new site with a new name: www.ibiblio.org . Mirrored on thousands of sites worldwide, ibiblio now stands as a testament to the power of shared knowledge.

The Red Hat Center also has spoken out in defense of Jon Johansen, a Norwegian teenager arrested in January for breaking international intellectual-property laws. By reverse engineering the copy protection system on his DVD player, Johansen created a program for playing DVDs on computers running the Linux operating system. He then linked to the source code for that program online. Because the distribution of that source code violated the DMCA, the Motion Picture Association notified Norwegian police of Johansen’s activity and filed lawsuits against U.S. citizens who displayed his source code on their sites.

“If these patent laws continue to expand, we will see more absurdity like this — the Norwegian government crashing down the bedroom door of a 16-year-old who was coding a piece of software that made perfect sense,” Young says. “How’s that 16-year-old ever going to build a business if every time he tries to write a piece of code some association or corporation sends in the gestapo to close him down?”

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That is the question Young hopes to plant in the mind of every technology consumer, government official, and business person around the globe. The threat to future entrepreneurs and to future Web users is very real, he says. And only a major, gut-wrenching change will save future generations from the handcuffs of expanding international copyright and patent laws.

“Knowledge needs to be free,” Young says. “That’s what our society relies on. That’s what our education system is built on. And that’s what I believe in.”

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