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Michael Tiemann among the libertarians

Open source works because open source shifts trust to code, not vendors. Nothing could be better for software buyers.

Michael Tiemann has an excellent piece on open-source licensing over on his Open Source Initiative (OSI) blog. He captures what I've been trying to say about Microsoft's application for OSI certification, in part (though he doesn't address this in his blog), as well as the importance of open-source licensing, generally.

Want the CliffsNotes? Open-source licensing works because it breeds trust in process and code, not in people.

What does this mean?

Savio Rodrigues writes about how open source instills trust, and he's right. Open source delivers transparency, which makes it easier for strangers (i.e., buyers) to trust the company and therefore to purchase from the vendor.

But open source, as Michael argues, actually goes one step further: it removes one's need to trust the vendor at all. If I have the source, the company becomes secondary to the project, at least as concerns the code, which means that I can adopt the code because I trust the code, not the company.

This is just one reason that the GPL is such an exceptional license, as Michael writes:

...[W]hat the GNU General Public License promises is continued rights to read, modify, share, and run software even when the owners of such software cannot be trusted. In other words, once a libertarian decides to invest in the ownership of understanding some software, such ownership cannot be denied by counter-claims of other assertions of property. And this is precisely the type of check-and-balance that gives us the courage to choose such software over other software for long-term investment...

Whether or not you consider yourself to have libertarian tendencies, you should ask yourself this: to the extent that you consider your rights to use, modify, share, and distribute software important to you (whether for personal or commercial reasons), how well are you protected against the strategic behavior of any of the rights-holders of the software upon which you depend? If your favorite software supplier were to suddenly become evil (in any way you choose to define evil), could you divorce yourself from that relationship and still enjoy your software? Or would you have to give up some of your software as part of that divorce? Would you have to give up personal freedoms or commercial opportunities because of such strategic behavior? The freedom to fork is a crucial check and balance which, even when exercised, leaves one more whole than any other convention I have studied.

Bingo. Beautiful. If we could trust people to be kind, generous and loving all of the time, we would have no need for constitutions, policemen and lawyers (yahoo!). But we can't. With open source, we need not, at least with respect to our software.

If you're an IT buyer, why would you ever want to depend on a vendor for your software? Depend on them for support, for indemnification, for whatever you want, but not for the software. When you take in that critical code, you should own it, and that means you must be able to fork the code and go it alone if your vendor goes away, goes wrong, or you simply don't wish to have a relationship anymore.

Which brings me back to my passing reference to Microsoft. I don't fear Microsoft's involvement in open source on the Open Source Initiative's terms. That is, on the Open Source Definition's terms. Provided that Microsoft abides by those terms, the software licensed under OSI-approved licenses provide the freedom from Microsoft that I discuss above. Given this, there is no need to trust to Microsoft's benevolence or worry about potential malevolence.

It's a question of code, if you have software licensed under an OSI-approved license. The vendor is secondary, and must earn its relationship with you through good service.

That's peace of mind. That's why open-source licensing matters.