Pendulum has swung in the open source debate

Some think open source is a convenient slogan. It's not. It's an inconvenient slogan that happens to be the basis for the next decade's commercial software world.

Eben Moglen (left) tells it like it is. James Duncan Davidson

Once upon a time, the term "open source" was coined to save the free-software world from itself--or, rather, from the free-software zealots, as you can read on the Open Source Initiative's Web site.

Today, I can't help but feel that the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, where we're so self-satisfied with the money we're making off open source that we have neglected the essential freedoms that make open-source profit possible.

The wake-up call about the necessary freedoms came from Eben Moglen at last week's O'Reilly Open Source Conference. Some, including software consultant Stephen Walli, don't like the way Eben said it. I wasn't in the room to hear Eben. At any rate, I'm not one for handwringing and am just glad it was said.

Why?

Because it is pointless to talk about open source without guaranteeing its underlying freedoms, with the right to fork (access to source code and the right to redistribute derivatives) paramount among them. I'm an ardent capitalist who likes having money--and the more of it, the better. But I recognize that free markets depend on...freedom. It's as true in software as it is in rice commodities.

Stephen wrote in his blog about freedom and commerce as if they're somehow opposed:

Jane Jacobs (originally famous for "The Death and Life of Great American Cities") wrote a small Socratic dialog called "Systems of Survival." The characters debate that there are exactly two value systems in existence. One leads to politics (protecting) and the other to commerce (trading). These value systems are not opposite ends of a spectrum, but rather different and incompatible. For each value in one syndrome there is no equal and opposite value in the other.

I haven't read Jacobs' piece, but on its face it strikes me as complete hooey. (Scientific word for "nonsense.") The two are not in tension--they exist best in concert.

I cannot trade with Customer X unless essential liberties are in place such that she will trust me to deliver (or be punished for not doing so). Trust is the primary currency in any so-called trading system, and that trust is guaranteed by protection of critical rights.

If you wonder why everyone seems to believe that the enterprise software model is broken (including the primary beneficiaries of it), it's because it is. Have you read a contract recently? "This software will blow up at any minute and it will be your fault for being stupid enough to bother buying it. Oh, and by the way, don't you dare to try fix your own problem or discover how our magic box works or you'll violate this license and Dire Things Will Happen." Inspire you to trust the vendor? Of course not.

Enter Eben. Here's what he said:

"Tim has a television show under production where we get told in advance what we are going to say and how it will reflect Tim's underlying idea. I decided not to go with the program...

...(W)e've reached a stage where we ought to be able to tell the difference between daily business news--X is up, Y is down--and the stuff that really matters, which from day to day is not racehorse X is running faster than racehorse Y.

I think what time has done with this forum in general is to emphasize the trivial at the expense of the significant."

One may prefer that Eben didn't make Tim squeamish. (I, for one, sympathize with this view, as I think highly of Tim.) But I find it hard to disagree with the content of what Eben was saying. The pendulum has swung too far is what he's trying to tell us. And if we're not careful, we'll end up with a load of open buffoonery.

We're well on our way.

Licensing does matter. It is what guards the essential freedoms that commerce is built upon. We cannot easily neglect the one in favor of cheap marketing gimmicks around open source. We spend an inordinate amount of time chatting about Facebook and the rise of Web 2.0, which is frankly nothing new (and is beginning to strike me as so vapid as to be a waste of digital ink). It just happens to run on the Web platform. Yahoo. Literally.

I'm with Eben. It would have been more interesting to talk about why customers should care about open source, rather than to spend a significant part of the day talking about why open source is irrelevant to what really matters, which is...the ability to be "friends" on MySpace.com?

If you care to see what such a discussion would sound like, come to the Linuxworld session I'm moderating next week (11:30 a.m., August 8) in San Francisco. I have Oliver Marks of Sony PlayStation Group, John Roberts of SugarCRM, Danese Cooper of the OSI, and Virginia Tsai Badenhope of Smithline Jha talking about why open source matters to vendors and customers, and how to maximize those benefits. Should be fun. I may "go Eben" on everyone. :-)

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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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