Patently Obvious

By Simon Worthington , 23 November 2005
Image: OM user from Digital Media Studio - Bejing

The OpenMute project explains its approach to the public domain after four years of using and contributing to FLOSSOmHorse As a sister project of Mute, and in the context of Mute’s knowledge commons issue, OpenMute would like to clarify its position and relationship to FLOSS and the public domain. OpenMute involves different people from Mute, and the experiences, knowledge and day to day practices of those individuals bring a different and complimentary perspective to the issue of the 21st century commons.

The OpenMute project started in 2001 to provide FLOSS communications web tools to cultural and community groups, with an understanding of their shared circumstances: limited resources, mixed levels of computer skills, and often little experience of the networked communications that FLOSS facilitates. As an advocate of the public domain, OpenMute adopted FLOSS as a tactical media toolset for its ability to challenge the ongoing conversion of everyday knowledge into property. When shared conventions from daily life can be borrowed and patented just because they have been replicated in computer code, the office becomes the virtual office and CompuCorpX now own it. FLOSS and its associated strategies are a way of opposing these exploitative types of property and social relationships.

OpenMute’s project now encompasses the following services: the free as in beer OM1 - a web CMS tool set now running over seven hundred individual web sites; the paid for OMXTRA; Web2POD print on demand, high quality low cost book production and distribution services; and recently, UserLand, a UK workshop tour with artists from across Europe advocating FLOSS cultural practice.

The public domain, which FLOSS is one method of contributing to, isn’t a clear cut situation and is relatively new (as is the postNet world). OpenMute has taken the approach of being an active FLOSS user/participant/contributor, in order to help secure the public domain as a place of radical change and liberation alongside other groups. FLOSS is one component of what OpenMute terms the Free Technology Movement which also comprises; Free networks – community run and owned networks; Free hardware standards – non proprietary standards; Peer2Peer networking – such as Pirate Byran; Open standards – W3C; Open content – WikiPedia; Open IP agreements – Creative Commons.

Although many FLOSS practitioners might have stated their political agnosticism, it is this perceived neutrality that allows on the one hand the anti-Capitalist movement to adopt FLOSS so readily and, on the other hand, corporations like IBM to see FLOSS as a more agile strategy for developing software and gaining ground on competitors like Microsoft.

OpenMute is funded by the Arts Council of England for its CMS web services 0M1/OMXTRA and its UK FLOSS tour, UserLand. In a UK context OpenMute is in the same position as other FLOSS initiatives supported by the UK Government, whether it’s in the area of education, the voluntary sector or community groups. The situation is one of accidental government involvement, with bottom up initiatives requesting support rather than the government having any policy or programmes which actively support FLOSS.

At a recent FLOSS voluntary groups event, SocialSource 2005, this situation was clearly underlined again and again as groups talked about their experiences. An example was Bristol Wireless which runs a scheme to provide primary school pupils with Linux installed laptops and a wireless connection to the school. The weak link is that the teachers are not trained in using Linux. Here a comparison can be made with Andalusia in the Iberian peninsular where there is an integrated FLOSS program by the government, and teachers are trained and supported in Linux. Another comparison is the ongoing support programme for the voluntary sector in the UK, called ChangeUp, where there is some FLOSS support. But again the initiative is piecemeal and only in its infancy, whereas in France local authorities run a local government SourceForge-like service, ADULLACT. If a government agency makes a FLOSS software package, for example to coordinate refuse collection, the software is put in a public repository for other government agencies to make use of.

Without integrated governmental support, initiatives face an uphill struggle. At last month’s WSFII summit in London, which brought together players in the FTM, I overheard a conversion between two of the people attending, which sums up OpenMute’s position on FLOSS: ‘Why’, a woman asked, ‘are we having to build VOIP networks on a shoestring? Isn’t this what the governments or the market should be up to?’ And her friend replied, ‘Yes, you would have thought so, but no they aren’t, so it looks like it’s DIY’.


URLS: OpenMute -

SocialSource -

ADULLACT – software mutualisation -

Bristol Wireless -

WSFII World Summit of Free Information Infrastructures -

Simon Worthington <> is the director of OpenMute and a lapsed artist