The walled garden of Open Source

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.



3 thoughts on “The walled garden of Open Source”

  1. I think it’s fine to have different views of how best to do open source projects and open source businesses. I, as you know, fall into the GPL camp. Both because I want to ensure freedom and profits for my company (though I’d take freedom before profits, if it came to that, and would become a carrot farmer, like you :-).

    But I respect the BSD/Apache camp, and I think there’s room for both, and certainly room to build businesses with both. So take Eben’s keynote as just one of several, each of which offers a different perspective on the market. I think you’d find that Rob Curley’s will warm your heart, even if Eben’s chills it.

  2. Matt, I agree there is a lot of room under the sun for everyone to cooperate, and I do agree that the current definition of Open Source allows for various business models around it. And actually, the point it’s not really about GPL or no GPL, my point is about walled gardens vs. software commons. Which both might relate to carrot farming, by the way. :-)

    As per your speaker layout, that’s definitely most impressive. and I will definitely miss not being able to attend OSBC (again). I wish you all the best, and will be looking for podcasts and video recordings!.

  3. Different horses for different courses.

    For the sort of products where organizations building them perceive proprietary competition based on their own code to be undesirable, the GPL is a great way to make that hard. For the sort of products where adoption in proprietary competition is desirable, more permissive legal terms are more effective (hence LGPL, GPL+linking exception, MIT, Apache, …).

    As long as proprietary software vendors exist, both approaches will have their uses, both in providing a ‘conversion path’ to becoming free software vendors, and in providing platforms to compete with them.

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