Open revolution

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Jack Kenny discovers why the Brazilian Culture minister is championing the use of open source software for all things digital

It looks as though the Brazilians are about to bring the same excitement, style and panache to ICT that they bring to the soccer field. At an event organised in London by Cybersalon, a group that stimulates debate on digital media issues, open source software, often the province of techie geeks, was presented by one of the world's leading singers as a philosophy that could rescue under-developed countries from digital dependence.

Singer and musician Gilberto Gil, who is as famous as Sir Paul McCartney or John Lennon in his own country, is the Minister of Culture for Brazil, a country that sees open source software as an important element in its quest to be a significant player in the digital world. He has impeccable credentials. Back in the 1960s, Gil was jailed by the country's military dictatorship for stirring up rebellion, and was exiled to Britain. Now he heads an important ministry and revolution is still on his mind.

Gil talked about the iniquity of a society where information can be locked down, where every use of information must be approved, and where every consumer of information has to pay for use. "We have no army; we just have our creativity," he joked. "We are hoping to build a creative economy."

One of the most important projects of the Ministry of Culture is creating a network of free software multimedia studios to give access to the internet to hundreds of Brazil's communities.

Gil has developed a new digital-sampling licence designed by Creative Commons to explore alternatives to the punitive terms of copyright.

Creative Commons is a system to license works, artistic or scientific, via the internet. The author and other copyright holders can, for example, authorise the download of a piece of music and its public performance, and even the amendment of the work. Gil has re-released a handful of his own records free for anyone to edit, to spice up their creations, a few seconds at a time.

Brazilian President Luiz In cio Lula da Silva has instructed government ministries and state-run companies to gradually switch from Microsoft operating systems to free operating systems such as Linux. Gil says that schools are being encouraged to use Linux, but not compelled. Gil knows that freedom to choose is the way forward for Brazil and countries like it.

Gil is anxious to point out that economics is not the main reason behind the decision to favour open source software or "software livre". In Portuguese, "livre" means free as in freedom not as in free of charge.

There is a principle: the present operating systems, Gil believes, work against countries trying to develop in the digital world and could hold them back so that they remain subservient to the more powerful nations.

Words such as "spirituality", "creativity" and "style" are an essential part of his vocabulary: "We have 200 million people and human creativity is our capital. We love the spiritual element of life. The DNA code of Brazilian life has much to offer the world."

Brazil, he hopes, will be a model for development, because Brazil is trying to respond to this moment in history. In terms that would sound grandiose coming from most people, Gil declares: "I am here to say 'Yes' to pushing forward the remodelling of humanity."

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