Maybe the problem is in mischaracterizing Google, not in its use of open source

I've been thinking about Google in the wrong way. Recasting the company as an advertising broker, for example, removes its apparent conflict with open-source software licensing. Do you agree?

I've been talking back and forth over email about "the Google/open source conundrum" with a few people that I deeply respect. This will all come out in an upcoming post (tentatively titled "GPL, the new BSD"), but in the course of talking with these people I'm starting to wonder:

Maybe the problem isn't that Google and other web companies aren't subject to the GPL in the same way as an offline company is, but rather that we/I think about them as technology companies at all.

This is the crux of my concern with the Web 2.0 crowd: I think of these companies as technology vendors, just as I think of SAP, Oracle, etc. But this is flawed, isn't it?

Google Adwords in action Google

Google isn't a Microsoft - not for the majority of its revenue, anyway. Google makes its money through search/advertising, and is therefore much closer to a Business 1.0 company in its actual business (i.e., why people pay it money) than it is a technology vendor.

Maybe Google, in particular, is partially at fault. It does increasingly compete with Microsoft in "desktop" applications, for example. In this way, it looks very much like a software vendor. To the extent that it enters into vending of software solutions (whether web-based or otherwise), I would like to see its use of open-source software constrained by the spirit of the Open Source 1.0 licenses (GPL, etc.). But for its other business...? I'm thinking a hall pass may be in order.

One of the people with whom I've been discussing this suggested that web companies "write software almost as a side effect of maintaining the quality of our services to users and to advertisers." I hadn't thought of that. Not sure why, but I completely missed it.

I am happy to have "normal" offline businesses use open-source software and not contribute back (though I wish that they would). After all, if they're not distributing, they're not in violation of any open-source license. I guess this is how Eben Moglen and the other GPLv3 authors felt when they were drafting that license, and opted to remove the "network distribution" language.

I still think we need licenses that close the ability to distribute software over the web as a service without contributing code back, but a ray of light has finally opened in my thick skull on this topic. I've just been thinking of Google in the wrong context. I've been conceptualizing it as a Silicon Valley software company. I don't like software companies misusing open source.

But, as this person said, Google and its ilk really aren't software companies. They are the Nordstroms of the 21st Century, and just happen to use the web as their delivery mechanism.

Am I wrong?

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Tech Culture
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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