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What We Talk About When We Talk About Open Source

Last week my colleague posted a thoughtful look at the notion of open source community versus communities. Boiled down, I view his argument to be this: describing the open source world as a single community is disingenuous, as it’s rather a loosely aligned federation of many different communities. Good stuff, and I agree. I don’t have quite the same aversion to “open source community” as a metaphor or conversational shortcut that he does, but his point is well taken.

The very diversity of communities that he cites, however, highlights what I believe to be the most significant threat to open source today. You might reasonably assume from that statement that I’m speaking of the complexity intrinsic to those various and fractured communities, but I’m not. While I don’t enjoy complexity, I find the alternative far more troubling. No, I’m referring instead to open source fundamentalism.

Open source fundamentalism can take many shapes, but it’s most often characterized by the twin beliefs that real and true open source is both GPL and free in every sense of that complex word. Alternative licenses, dual licenses or commercial offerings may not violate the letter of the open source law, but certainly the spirit. Or so the thinking goes.

Well, I can’t speak for my partner on this issue, but for my own part I reject that notion utterly. I find this notion not only disturbing, but potentially damaging to open source generally.

Now I can almost feel the GPL advocates out there heating up their keyboards with a furious, indignant response, and I say to them: peace, brother. Let me explain. Let me inject a bit of context. I use GPL software every day. This entry, in fact, was composed using GPL software, as was the email I wrote before it. My objections here, my discomfort, if you will, is with the philosophically fundamentalist stance that many GPL advocates take. The stance that says that my approach is the one true approach; all others are mere heresy.

I’ve come this far without citing any evidence of what I’m all hopped up about, however, so let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. I ran across this article in a link from Marc Fleury.

While it may seem a minor issue, the JBoss-Geronimo issue is symptomatic not only of problems with open source and its definition, but with how we handle computer technology in general. As I will show in this paper, JBoss is by no means in the spirit of open source and should not be considered an open source product. But more, the fact that a company like JBoss can consider itself an open source company is a disturbing sign that the true meaning and intention of the open source movement has fallen victim to the very issues that engendered its inception.

The language itself betrays his sentiment; listen to what the editors call word choice: “spirit of open source,” “true meaning and intention,” “fallen victim.” The writer is using the lexicon of the oppressed to defend his vision – which he assumes that you share – of what open source should be. Moczar’s playing a modern day Bernard of Clairvaux, calling forth his own crusaders to assail the enemies of the one, true faith. And who might those enemies be? Those like Microsoft, who are legitimately anti-open source? No, instead it’s the non-fundamentalists, the heretics. Those who stray from the GPL/non-commercial “spirit of open source.”

Call me crazy, but I think the open source world has and will continue to benefit from heretics like Fleury’s JBoss. Why? Because open source to me is as much about choice and options as it is about source code.

Take the Creative Commons as an example. What’s their gift to the world? New licenses? Hardly. It’s their focus on helping ordinary people – artists, musicians, even analysts like us – make educated choices about how we distribute and license our work. They recognize that while content producers may make different choices in how free our work might be – even wishing to get paid now and then – the Commons still benefits.

And so it is with open source. Would I be pleased as punch if OpenSolaris was available under the GPL, and thus some of the goodness therein would find its way into my Gentoo desktop? Absolutely. Do I respect Sun’s right to choose their own terms for their work? You bet, just as I support Apache’s right, Eclipse’s right, Mozilla’s right and so on. To bend Voltaire a bit, I may disagree with the licenses organizations choose, but I will certainly defend their right to that choice. Choice gives developers and enterprises alike the opportunity to work openly, under terms that they can live with. It’s all good for the Commons, in my view. Some licenses are better than others, but that’s what competition [1] is all about – make your choices accordingly.

When I talk about open source then, I’m not talking about any shared vision or ill-defined spirit. I applaud the nobel sentiments of folks like Stallman that champion free software, but I believe in choice and flexibility over inflexible doctrine. Fundamentalism is never an attractive trait with me, whether it’s open source of theological interpretation. Being a relatively pragmatic individual, I also believe that diversity in licenses and participants is a mark of success for open source, as well as an indication of growth potential. But I put the question back to all of you: when you talk about open source, what are you talking about?

[1] On the competitive front, I also think that these choices and the incompatabilities introduce may have some unanticipated benefits for open source projects of all shapes and sizes. If OpenSolaris gets any traction, for example, is it conceivable that Linux might be forced to respond and develop new features in response? I think so, and I look forward to it.

[*] tecosystems trivia: For the those of you with literary bents, the title of this piece is a play on the title from a short story by one of my favorite American authors (no, it’s not Stephen King). A gold star for anyone who knows who that author is.

Categories: Open Source.

  • Claire Giordano

    Trivia answer: Ray Carver…?

  • http://www.redmonk.com/sogrady sogrady

    That didn't take long. We have a winner, Claire takes the gold star. The reference was indeed Raymond Carver, master of the American short story. If you haven't read him yet, I recommend it.

    Congrats, Claire.

  • Dalibor Topic

    Creative Commons != Open Source. See http://creativecommons.org/faq#faq_entry_3646 for details.

    Moczar != FSF. FSF sells their free software, actually, so they'd probably meet Lajos' definition of a COS, as they both sell software and are a strong brand name.

    cheers,
    dalibor topic

  • http://www.redmonk.com/sogrady sogrady

    thx for the comment dalibor. first off, i appreciate that the CC does not bill themselves as open source, but at the end of the day i think that's what they amount to.

    as for the FSF, i realize that Moczar absolutely does not speak for them – and is an extreme case – but there are underlying similarities.

    good points both, however.