Open Tech Today - Top Stories

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Is Open Source Being Corrupted?

In a recent report/interview, Michael Goulde of Forrester Research rang the alarm bell about the risk of profit-hungry tech companies corrupting the "open" values of open source communities and projects.

His argument (summarized here) is: As companies try to cash in on the open source phenomena and become more active in open source projects, they have a strong motivation to steer those projects (and the software produced by them) in directions more amenable to generating revenues and less in line with the principles of freedom to use, copy, modify distribute that open source software represents.

The shorthand argument is this . . . Absolute community corrupts absolutely. As open source communities increasingly involve vendors, their presence (and profit motive) risks corrupting the basic principles of open source software.

So, will the quest for profits erode the "open" in open source?

To begin, I see no inherant contradiction between open source and profits. Many do. I don't. Access to source code combined with the open source principles allows someone to take code, change it, build new softare on top of it, and sell a new software product (or service wrapped around it). Open source licenses protect access to code, but don't stop people from building businesses around it.

The real risks exist when there is no robust community behind an open source project, or if a vendor is trying to "open source" some proprietary software but does not really want to relinquish control over its development. In other words, if you don't have a truly open community, there is a risk that a vendor can steer development or impose conditions inconsistent with an open source model. But then again, any person with appropriate technical expertise willing to be very active in a project can "steer" it to some degree.

I would guess that a strategy to co-opt an open source project would, in most cases, fail in the end. Open and closed work differently. And developers easily spot the difference once they get involved in a project.

There is a certain resiliency involved in open source projects that have a critical mass of community behind them. And it is not easy to remove the fundamental elements of open source -- like code access and basic licensing terms -- without people noticing, and complaining loudly.

You can find additional commentary organized by Dave Rosenberg of the OSDL (including some of my own) here.

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