I gave a shiver when reading what Eben Moglen is going to be talking about at the upcoming OSBC:
Copyleft Business Models: Why It’s Good Not To Be Your Competitor’s Free Lunch
Abstract: Now that the GPL wars are over, and we have two good GPLs to choose from, it is time to re-ask some fundamental questions about business models and software licenses. In this talk, I explain why smaller software-focused businesses will soon be deserting Apache- and BSD-style permissive licenses for GPL[2 3] and their successors.
This is a perfect example of what’s wrong with Open Source nowadays. I keep hearing the argument that GPL is the best way to avoid your competitor to run away with your code, and I just can’t stop thinking how this is the correct answer to the wrong question. First of all, in Open Source (or should I say Open Development?) there shouldn’t be such thing as “your” code: commons-based peer production of software is all about sharing technology, and build value upon it.
Code is just part of the game: ultimately, what you definitely don’t want to happen is your competitor running away with your value, and there is much more to value then just code. Your competitor can run away with your code just fine, even in the GPL world, but this isn’t going to make a substantial harm to your business: Unbreakable Linux anyone?
At the end of the day, the GPL is a powerful tool for the new wave of Open Source to build walled gardens and keep business as usual in software-land, while giving a casual wink at Open Source as the only way that makes sense today to bring a product to the market. Software is developed behind firewalls, external contribution beyond casual bug fixes are not welcome, most business models revolve around upselling users to paying customers with little added value other than a different license. No economies of scale, no distributed innovation, no collaboration to share a common technical platform and work on adding business value to each proposition. Can you say “BORING”?
The not-so-subtle hint the players of Commercial Open Source have in common is that users should be paying because it takes time and effort to build a software, and this needs to be compensated. And hey, they’re right: if the burden of building software, paying engineers, doing QA and all that falls entirely on their shoulder, it’s just fair they seek compensation even before looking for profit. Then again, this is another correct answer to the wrong question. A successful Open Source ecosystem works when different entities (companies, research, users, individuals) collaborate on building a technology, the commercial part being adding business value to the platform.
Isn’t it exactly what RedHat does, by the way? They stand on a huge community cluster, they contribute quite significantly to the ecosystem, and they sell the packaging and oversight as the added business value. Do they use GPL? Sure, but not as a tool to protect themselves against the competition. Their ultimate protection is brand, quality and ultimately guess what? Value. Even Oracle had to learn that the hard way.
This is why permissive licenses are not going away, no matter what the FSF may think. As long as we are going to see companies who grok Open Source as the best way to collaborate on technology and compete on business value, we will need permissive licenses to allow ecosystems of participation. Software vendors in disguise are of course free to (ab)use the FSF and the GPL to keep on pretending they are Open Source players while burning money in expensive internal engineers and QA teams: just remember that, in the end, the community wins. No matter what.