Whither open source in the land of leeches?

Do open-source leeches help or hurt themselves by strip-mining open source?

IBM's Savio Rodrigues sees a lot of benefits from proprietary technology companies like Cisco "leeching" off open-source communities to boost profits and drive top-line revenue growth. I'm inclined to agree, at least with his assessment of IBM's involvement in open source.

IBM, however, may be the exception to the rule. Savio is quick to stress that IBM, at least in the case of the Apache HTTP Server, was not merely a parasite, but also contributed significant resources to sustaining and improving the Apache code. IBM, in this way, has been a model open-source citizen.

Other proprietary vendors are less salutary to the open-source communities from which they "borrow." Dave Roberts of Vyatta, an open-source competitor to Cisco, takes a swipe at the networking giant for "reducing costs with open source [and] pocketing profits," but contributing little to nothing back. I'm sympathetic to this view, as I've written before, particularly with reference to the Web 2.0 companies that derive huge benefits from open source and contribute virtually nothing back.

Fair game? Well, as a free-market liberal (in the classical sense), I'm all for companies using all legal and ethical means to boost profits and revenue. But I do worry that some short-sighted "profit taking" by proprietary (and open-source) vendors may leave us with a non-renewable open-source resource.

But maybe the market is self-correcting. Meaning, maybe if Cisco is, in fact, taking without giving, it will eventually "deforest" open source to the extent that it will hurt its profits, which will lead it to contribute back as a means of self-preservation.

If we get to that point, open source should boom, with rising number of contributions made to serve long-term strategic interests in low-cost complements.

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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