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Open Source's Tireless Pest

Bruce PerensThe nuclear fuel of the open-source movement has been passionate people, who can be selfless in their idealistic pursuit. They're also people who can be flat-out annoying in their single-minded view of software. Count Bruce Perens among them.

But the idealists remain a force in the open-source community, so it's important to listen to what worries them. For Perens, it's intellectual property, the fear that some companies are on the verge of using patents to collect royalties from open-source users. IBM and Microsoft are filing for thousands of patents a year, and though those aren't used against open-source users today, he frets they could be.

"The main thing to do next is step up the patent fight," says Perens, VP of SourceLabs Inc., a company that integrates open-source code stacks. He plans to spend at least half his working hours talking with government officials, CEOs, developer groups, and other influential people to push for legislation that protects open-source code from patent challenges.

The only direct challenge to open-source code involving patents so far is SCO Group's 2-year-old suit against IBM, which charges that IBM's contributions to Linux violated SCO's ownership of Unix, including its patent rights to Unix. If SCO succeeds, Perens predicts more such cases will follow.

Perens, 48, has a history of unbending stands on open-source issues. While a senior systems programmer at Pixar Animation Studios, he led work on the second release of Debian Linux, a well-regarded version of the operating system that, unlike many versions of Linux, hasn't been commercialized. He also created what became known as the Open Source Definition, which sets out the requirements code must meet to be considered open source and the rights of users of that code.

In 2002, Perens launched www.sincere to counter the Computer Technology Industry Association's Initiative for Software Choice, which Perens considers pro-Microsoft. It's the kind of industry-insider tempest that motivates open-source faithful but doesn't necessarily fly in a company like Hewlett-Packard, where Perens lasted two years.

Prentice Hall has recognized Perens' role as open-source guru with the publication of a 15-book series on open-source code called the Bruce Perens Professional Technical Reference Series, which Perens helped edit. Recently Perens told delegates at the U.N. Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia that open source is "a community without borders, a global network that shares knowledge. ... Our work facilitates global E-inclusion and a sustainable infrastructure for technology. ... We create wealth for all." SourceLabs colleague Cornelius Willis describes him as "an idealist and a passionate advocate."

Others find Perens abrasive. But even as open source marches into ever-more-corporate roles, such passionate advocacy will help shape its direction.

--Charles Babcock

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