Open Source In A Parallel Universe - InformationWeek

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12/7/2009
12:43 PM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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Open Source In A Parallel Universe

Something crossed my desk recently that embodied one of my major criticisms of how open source is promoted. It can't be something that lives in its own alternate universe and follow its own laws of physics -- or economics.

Something crossed my desk recently that embodied one of my major criticisms of how open source is promoted. It can't be something that lives in its own alternate universe and follow its own laws of physics -- or economics.

The item in question is a note from Florian Muller, writing about a paper submitted to the European Commission by Software Freedom Law Center chairman Eben Moglen. Said paper was an analysis of the MySQL / Sun / Oracle situation. Muller took a look at it, then wrote his own dissection of Moglen's paper. It's not very kind to Moglen's view of the situation, which Muller sees as being riddled with everything from wishful thinking to just plain inaccurate statements.

One example of the former:

The problem with hoping for future contributions [to MySQL] from large companies is just that MySQL has historically not had Linux-like support from companies like IBM, which has its own database business anyway.

Moglen is not the only person I've seen making statements of this caliber. Contributions to an open source project by a major software player, more often than not, are done for the benefit of the person making the contribution. They're not charity projects. (It's not clear, for instance, how much OpenOffice.org has benefited from IBM's Lotus Symphony fork -- if at all. Granted, that's a fork rather than a back-contribution, but the fact that IBM chose to fork the project rather than contribute to it directly is pretty telling.)

Among the points Muller brings up, this one stands out most for me:

Everything [Moglen] says is based on his own view that the GPL universe and the rest of the IT universe should be parallel universes, at least he doesn't accept that an open source company wants to meet the demand that exists for integrating Free and Open Source Software into proprietary products. Eben Moglen favors "copyright diversity" even though that means that sooner or later you have no realistic chance as a customer to get a non-GPL license to such a piece of software and thus there's no way to warp that software out of the GPL universe anymore. In this regard his positions are exclusionist and much more fundamentalist than those of Richard Stallman, who does encourage dual licensing.

... If he were right that MySQL AB and all of the companies that succeeded around MySQL didn't do it right and that a GPL-only approach works best, then actually there would be no point in Sun having acquired MySQL last year nor in Oracle acquiring it now because then the future would at any rate be that someone has to fork it and do a GPL-only project dependent on voluntary contributions. Interestingly, that approach would have been possible during all of those almost 14 years that MySQL has been available and no one, not even Eben Moglen, decided to seize that opportunity.

More than anything else I have read recently, the phrase "parallel universes" sums up so much of what open source's fiercest advocates seem to be aiming for. The GPL makes it all too easy not just for software to exist in dual incarnations, but for the entirety of IT to follow suit -- the software, the hardware, the licensing, the whole thing.

The problem is, as someone else put it, "there are many more of them then there are of us." The non-GPL (and for that matter, non-FOSS/non-libre) software world still outweighs the rest of the pack in terms of sheer size and clout. Mileage varies between territories, but that's what the average seems to be.

This is why I cringe whenever I hear someone espouse an open source strategy along the lines of "We're going to wait for / make them come around to our way of thinking." It's a long-term dead end. Not because FOSS is a bad idea, but because a great deal of the way the world works -- the non-software, non-IT world, the messy real world -- requires compromise and amelioration, and because most people do not (and probably never will) have ideological, rather than practical, reasons to make IT choices.

(What's more, forking a project as an escape route from such things -- whether to put it squarely into the GPL-only world or get out of it -- creates at least as many problems as it solves. Forking a project the size and scope of MySQL requires at least as much programming talent as it took to maintain the original. Such people don't simply drop out of the clouds.)

Multiple licensing is one such way FOSS has accommodated itself to the real world. It's not the only possible strategy, but it's proven itself quite well. What sense is there in junking it for a strategy which, on the face of it, would only make MySQL that much more difficult to support in a substantive way?

We live in this world, whether we like it or not. Might as well make the most of it.

Our "A New IT Manifesto" report looks at a variety of new approaches and technologies that let IT rebels take on a whole new role, enhancing their companies' competitiveness and engaging their entire organizations more intimately with customers. Download the report here (registration required).

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