Jews, Gentiles, and the Open Source Definition

Have I been "making a man an offender for a word?"

I was read Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews today in the New Testament (Bible) and stumbled across some interesting background, background which resonates today in the open-source community.

Paul wrote his Epistle to the Hebrews shortly after returning to Jerusalem to find many of the Jewish Christians still "zealous of the law" (See Acts 21:20), despite roughly 10 years having passed since the conference at Jerusalem which determined that certain ordinances of the law of Moses (e.g., circumcision) were not necessary for salvation of the gentile Christians. Paul then wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews to try to re-frame the faith of the Jewish Christians away from old ordinances.

Being something of an "open-source Pharisee" myself, it's fascinating to see much the same phenomenon roughly 2000 years later in the software industry. I'll explain.

On the one hand, you have the free software purists (of which I'm increasingly part) who demand strict adherence to The Law (of open source). On the other, you have a growing "gentile" body of open-source converts, some of which don't want to have to live by old-school "ordinances" of open source.

A fair amount of tension exists today between the two camps, just as in Paul's day. This is ironic since both sides essentially agree and want to move in the same direction.

Paul ultimately was (probably) killed for his troubles, a fate to which I'd rather not see the open-source world subject itself. Instead, I think there's a clear principle that offers middle ground for the old guard of free/open source and the new guard.

It's called the Open Source Definition.

The Open Source Definition provides clear guidelines as to what open source is. It's not a rigid set of ordinances dictated by a ruling elite. Instead, it's a fluid (but firm) set of principles that convey what a license must allow in order to authoritatively carry the label "open source."

Importantly, I think the Open Source Definition doesn't go as far as the free software purists would like in demanding software freedom, nor does it go as far as the commercial open-source capitalists would like in order to let them drape themselves in the open-source flag while still keeping two feet in an essentially proprietary model. It displeases both camps for not being extreme enough. Surely there's something to that!

If we keep our eyes on the Open Source Definition when measuring things like Novell's patent agreement with Microsoft, Oracle's co-opting of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, we need not degenerate into ad hominem attacks or anger (which I admit that I've sometimes allowed myself, unfortunately). We simply refer to the principles of the Open Source Definition. If the actions don't meet the letter and/or spirit of the Open Source Definition, the software isn't open source. Enough said.

Now let's see if I can live up to my ideals. :-)

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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