Frankly, it strikes me a philosophical divide akin to the one that exists between the Apache camp, which favors permissive licensing terms, and the FSF, which advocates reciprocal-style alternatives. Not solely in the depth of the divide, in fact, but also in its persistence.
The poster child for the debate, typically, is MySQL. MySQL, you’ll recall, is a project which is an open source project (we can have that debate later) developed almost entirely by a single vendor. Unlike projects such as Linux, which are developed collaboratively by multiple entities, MySQL alone bears the burden of development, in return for which they retain rights that developers of Linux do not. Among them, the ability to relicense the code under more liberal terms than the standard GPL – the foundation of the so-called “dual license” model.
Personally, I believe MySQL is both an open source project and an open source company, but opinions obviously differ. This opinion was outlined in an earlier piece written about OpenSolaris. Responding to a question as to whether or not Sun was an “open source company,” I said the following:
To me, that question, and much of the discussion above, boils down to a philosophical question: are Linux and MySQL both open source? Or do you believe that anything short of the Linux model does not qualify? That was, in fact, the question I asked Michael [Dolan] in a comment. His reply was this:
I do not consider MySQL to be an open source development community which to its credit, MySQL has never claimed; unlike Sun/OpenSolaris.
While noting that the response doesn’t actually answer the question, it does point to the fundamental disconnect between our two viewpoints: I’m judging open source by the availability and licensing of the code, while Michael, Amanda and other critics seem to prefer a community based metric. As should be expected, since it favors their platform of choice.
For my part, I believe that MySQL is in fact an open source company and an open source project, in spite of the fact that the development of the codebase is not open but rather done entirely (or nearly so) by MySQL employees. So, assuming that Amanda is correct and that there are 70 external OpenSolaris engineers versus Linux’s 3K, that still leaves OpenSolaris as “more open” than MySQL. Whatever that means.
The question of whether or not some projects governance and contribution models are more open than others is not, to me, the question. Or even a question, to be honest: of course there is a spectrum of open, and a preponderance of different models servicing quote unquote open projects.
The questions, to me, are first whether or not this diversity of approaches is a good thing or a bad thing for open source, and second whether or not the distinction is important to the end users of said projects.
As to the first, my typical response is to point to the LAMP stack which collectively has enjoyed such success, but individually uses a variety of different licenses and contribution models. It includes both permissive (Apache and PHP/Python/Perl) and reciprocally (Linux, MySQL) licensed assets and it incorporates single (MySQL) and multi-entity (Apache, Linux, PHP/Python/Perl) developed open source projects, and in doing so highlights the benefits of an approach that transcends philosophical boundaries.
Are those boundaries important to end users? In certain cases, certainly. Following the acquisition of MySQL by Sun, as an example, many contemplated doomsday scenarios in which an evil Sun “closed” the MySQL source going forward. Given that MySQL employs a high percentage of the developers in the world that are qualified to work on the code, a closing of MySQL’s source – ignoring for a moment the fact that such a decision would immediately render worthless the billion dollars Sun invested in the firm – would indeed pose some problems. But because the source for the software is…wait for it…open, these problems would be recoverable.
Is the development model that Linux operates under more open than MySQL’s, then? Indeed. Does that make the code itself more “open?” It’s debatable. Even if it were, how would one measure the distinction?
My analyst colleague Matthew Aslett from the 451 Group suggests that the idea of measuring
projects companies considered open by the OSI definition according to a second set of metrics, by which they could earn the additional appellation of “Equitable Open Source,” might go some way towards defusing the debates about what is and is not open source. I respectfully disagree.
Those in the industry that might care have, I would argue, already formed their opinions on whether or not a project such as MySQL’s is or is not open source. And those outside the industry, well, I don’t expect they’d care. At all. Most of the enterprises I speak with are still struggling with the basics of what open source is and what it means. Intending no disrespect, most are akin to the robotic arm that was told to place blocks one on top of another to build a two foot tower, and began by dropping them from a height of two feet because it was unfamiliar with the concept of gravity.
I for one would not look forward to the challenges of educating them on a spectrum of equitable vs (? inequitable?) open source. Or organic vs non-organic.
I’m not arguing that there are no differences between the approaches, please note; merely that I think an appreciation for them is utterly beyond most of the end users I know, who see few if any problems with MySQL-style models.
Consider, as an example, MySQL versus Postgres. Both are open source relational database projects, one is permissively licensed and the other reciprocal, and one is developed by a single commercial entity and the other by a community that includes multiple commercial entities. Certainly there are cases where one is selected over another because of one of the above factors, but far more frequently in my experience the choice is made according to technical criteria.
Which, in my opinion, is as it should be, as I believe that diversity in both licensing and governance models is a positive rather than something that should be stamped out.
But as always, your mileage may vary.
As an addendum, for those (few) that are interested in the above subject, it’s looking as if I and some other folks will be sitting on a panel on OSCON at Friday morning to discuss it. Can’t find an abstract as yet, but will add it as it becomes available.
Disclosure: Both MySQL and its acquirer Sun are RedMonk customers.
Update: Corrected the Equitable Open Source target from projects to companies, per mtg’s comment below.