Could open source have built Silicon Valley?

Could open source have built Silicon Valley?

Summary: In Silicon Valley, innovation is the fertilizer that makes the crops grow. With open source, software is more like topsoil, and those who nurture that soil believe they will prosper longer than those who just throw fertilizer on it.


The failure of OSCON to make a splash in San Jose (expect to see it back in Portland next year) is leading to some general soul-searching which results in this question.

Could we have built Silicon Valley in an open source world?

In other words, to what extent is the wealth of technology a result of legally-sanctioned monopoly as opposed to open competition?

That's what patents and copyright are, legally-sanctioned monopoly.

Let's quote again from Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, enumerating the powers of the Congress:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

Another term for an exclusive right is a monopoly, and it was with the term monopoly that this power was discussed by the Founders. It's not intellectual property. It's an exclusive right to an idea, a monopoly over its use.

But technology has always demanded more than what the Founders granted.

The Microsoft EULA is a direct descendant of IBM contracts from the 1950s, in which buyers gave sellers control over what they were buying in perpetuity. Long before the subject of software patents came up, IBM was fighting against leaks of knowledge about how it did things, and against reverse engineering of its inventions.

Without this power over its customers, could IBM have existed? Could Microsoft have existed?

Open source is really just a different type of contract, one that transfers power from the sellers to the buyers of technology. It places a time limit on those monopoly rents innovators depend upon, one that is earlier than what is offered by copyright, by patent, by other software contracts.

In Silicon Valley, innovation is the fertilizer that makes the crops grow. With open source, software is more like topsoil, and those who nurture that soil believe they will prosper longer than those who just throw fertilizer on it.

Invention is the plant corporations harvest for their profit. Software is the environment on which everyone's survival depends.

OSCON, I think, is better off in Portland.

Topics: IT Employment, CXO, Open Source, Software

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  • And here I allways believed that

    Patents and copyrights protected the property and investment of those talented or willing enough to have thought them up, and to have invested their lives into that idea.

    Imagine no copyrights on a Stephen King novel, or on OS X.

    all those years working on a project for nought, as someone takes the product and uses it for their own finacial gain.

    But then again, patents and copyrights are bad when they stop us from taking someone else's idea, yet wonderful when they stop others from taking our own.

    So please, let us attach the ugly nomenclature "monopoloy" to any idea that someone staked their own future on.

    Like this blog. I think I will use it on my own personal website.

    You do not mind, do you?

  • By your own admission, it's Constitutional.

    I think Silicone valley would exist only they would be a lot poorer for it. The turnover rate for companies would be higher. We also would have less advanced tech. Can't take out all the incentive or it doesn't get developed. The trick is how long you want them to have a temporary monopoly. I believe they should have this IP to recoup their R&D costs. What I object to is the Mickey Mouse factor. That would be never ending copyright. Also what was written 200 years ago evolved into something that the framers would definitely frown on.
    • Silicone Valley?

      Isn't "Silicone Valley" down in Orange County, where all the plastic surgeons are? ;)
      • At least you were humorous

      • RE: Could open source have built Silicon Valley?

        With open source, software is more like topsoil, and those who nurture that soil believe they will prosper longer than those who just throw fertilizer on it.<a href=""><font color="LightGrey"> k</font></a>
  • No. Not in my view.

    Since the early '80's, the IT industry has seen the kind of growth that many could only have dreamed of.

    Love it or loathe it, that growth has been fuelled by companies selling their products for money.

    Back in the early 80's, Gates famously took on Stallman's views at one of the first computer conferences and explained his view that, in general, software should NOT be given away for free.

    Gates and others conviced the majority that in order to create, sell and support great products you had to pay people for their time and effort. Whilst you can create pretty good products using an army of volunteers, doing so long term and to the highest possible quality levels increases in difficulty in an exponential manner.

    Without the enormous growth we've seen in the last 30+ years, we would NOT now be enjoying the prospect of buying PC's with 8 logical cores, 6GB RAM and a 1TB HDD for less than $1000. It's unlikley that there would be enough people using computers to allow us to connect to a world-wide network of computers at (often) colossal speeds for less than a dollar a day.
    • Theres one problem with this...

      He didn't ask if free software could build Silicon Valley. He asked if open source software could have built Silicon Valley.

      There is no reason you cannot charge for open source software. Of course someone will argue that if the source is open then anyone could take and do the same thing. But if thats the case then maybe we should question the value of software. The value seems to be created by hiding what was done rather than doing something that truly could not be reproduced. There are cases where some mathematical formula or algorithm is developed that may not have been generally known. But for the most part code is nothing more than breaking common logic down into something a computer can understand.

      If anything I believe Silicon Valley could have been built but may look quite a bit different. I believe it would have benefited the developers.
  • RE: Could open source have built Silicon Valley?

    "Another term for an exclusive right is a monopoly"? Not really. Monopoly depends on pricing power, competitive non-infringing alternatives, etc.

    Moreover, a patent merely provides the right to exclude, not even the right to use the protected invention. If I get a patent on a genus and you get a patent on a species within the genus, you can exclude me from practicing the species invention (a subpart of my genus invention) AND I can exclude you from practicing your entire species invention.

    Ps - The "patent bubble" has popped. Much harder to get and commercialize a patent in the US. PTO went from "not being able to hire their way out of the backlog" to coming close to furloughing patent examiners. POP! The impact of anti-patent reforms on innovation remains to be seen.
  • RE: Could open source have built Silicon Valley?

    IMO one has little to do with the other. Smart money follows innovations, independent of the geography. Moreover, this is a rear-view-mirror question. "Will Silicon Valley continue to thrive in the Open Source world?" may be a more appropriate question. As a 30-year technology veteran based in the Silicon Valley I've no doubt, whatsoever. I've seen it re-invent itself several times - from silicon (semiconductors) to computer systems & networking, to software & biotech. Companies and entrepreneurs that resist embracing open source are likely to follow DEC, Prime, Wang, Apollo and likes. Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP (LAMP) have already proven their value. One would be hard-pressed to find a commercial enterprise that doesn?t use open source software today. Over $3 Billion of venture money has gone to fund open source-based companies, between 1998 and 2007 according to The 451 Group, a market research firm. Many of them have yielded pretty decent ROI for their investors - RedHat, MySQL, Jboss and XenSource to name a few. New money continues to flow into new open source-based ventures, such as the company I?m part of - Lucid Imagination, a commercial entity focused on the world?s most widely used open source search software ? Apache Lucene. It was recently (Sept 08) funded by a couple of enterprise software-savvy Silicon Valley VCs as well as In-Q-Tel, the venture arm of the CIA.
    Anil Uberoi
  • Openness in Silicon Valley

    I remember an article on this site about the CA
    Supreme Court decision that rendered worker non-
    compete agreements null and void. The article
    mentioned that one of the reasons Silicon Valley
    became such a force was because non-compete agreements
    were not strenuously enforced.

    Anyway, that article ties into this article in that I
    think that an open source environment would be a
    logical extension of the one that created Silicon
    Valley in the first place.
    Third of Five
  • RE: Could open source have built Silicon Valley?

    That is a nice simplistic view of what fuels innovation.

    The real case is that would only be true in a society that supposedly exists in a Star Trek world, where no one is concerned with material gains, just the furtherment of the human condition.

    Nice dream.

    Unfortunately, this world is based on greed. Dictators try to keep it for themselves (no innovation), Socialism says every last person in the world makes minimum wage(no innovation) and Capitalism allows the individual to keep the fruits of their labor (Lots of innovation).

    And, if I am not mistaken, the largest OSS projects are supported by those capitalist corporations that have some angle that can make them money or knock down the competition (i.e. MicroSoft).

    So, I am not sure your hindsight is 20/20 in this case.

    Don't get me wrong, I am all for OSS, but its not probable that OSS alone would have made Silicon valley what it is today. I mean why would I want to do something for a simple pat on the back? Give me more food on the table and more toys in the garage and I'm in!
    • (Nice to see a signon "Atari800"]

      Hey, it's nice to see a user name of "Atari800"!

      -- David Small
  • Silicon Valley Way Behind the Times

    Open Source became the standard years ago. The problem is -- the big tech companies won't even check out Open Source solutions or consider them when looking at frameworks for their software or hardware. They are ignorant about most Open Source projects, but they won't admit it. So the vendors, developers and users almost exclusively focus on proprietary technologies that are inferior, over-priced, and smaller potential markets.

    osCommece is the most popular ecommerce Merchant solution. It is 100% Open Source.

    Joomla is the most popular project on the Internet.

    Other OS projects are very popular -- Drupal, Typo3, etc. documents how the Open Source world has matured, and many OS projects are best-in-class. But neither Microsoft, Apple, not even Adobe seem to be in-tune, on-top, or positioned to exploit the incredible demand for PHP and Java-based tools, templates and plut-ins for Open Source frameworks. Open Source projects are sometimes so large, that have grown their own mini-economies, complete with software extension developers, appliance manufacturers, service providers, educators, consultants.

    I don't know that Gartner, Giga or other research firms are even aware of the economy; and I have yet to see statistics on the total revenue produced by companies that distribute software, templates and services for Open Source. It could be billions or tens of billions. It is amazing at how ignorant many Bay Area webmasters and technologists are. "What's Joomla?" they ask. Meanwhile, sites like RentACoder, Elance, etc, are on fire with tens of thousands of projects centered in Open Source frameworks.

    Universities, Colleges, Trade Schools and even the Venture Firms also seem clueless. Few PHP courses. Forget about Silicon Valley. That geographic culture is often subject to extended periods of blindness and silence. It shows in their lack of leadership, vision, follow-through, and actual Open Source project experience.

    Microsoft has outlawed PHP, the most popular programming language, the technology used to build 90% of the Open Source Projects. What if Microsoft, Adobe, and Borland had recognized the importance of PHP years ago? Our entire tech ecnomy would probably be twice as big, with thousands more jobs in the U.S.

    What we need from Silicon Valley is leadership and integrity. Enough leadership to give Open Source its fair place and credit. And enough integrity to condemn and blast the wrong decisions of many technology companies who are not supporting and even fighting the acceptance of Open Source. And we need for publications to stop devoting a majority of their space to advertisers, rather than the content that matters. What matters to me is Open Source. And the harder Microsoft attacks Open Source, the more I will distrust their brand. Open Source Rocks!
  • Microsoft's top lawyer: "We all have mixed computing environments"

    Microsoft's top lawyer: "We all have mixed computing environments".

    Forgot the name of the guy, but he is a fellow Hispanic.

    By "mixed" he meant a combination of proprietary and OSS.

  • No. Almost, by definition.

    Almost by definition Silicon Valley, the way it is now, would not be the critter *it is now* if history was rewound to 1980 and open source was used.

    For one thing, there was no Web, and far fewer sites on the Internet (what we called it then). For another, Silicon Valley the way it is now was responsible for building the tools to make open source possible, e.g., a lot of the Internet's stuff. [ I know that a lot came from Gnu, I know Linus was not from Silicon, but a lot *did*, okay? ]

    "Silicon Valley", the way it is *now*, was built by people willing to take huge risks (working for 5-10 year periods of their lives, and you don't get many of those) if there were huge profits on the horizon.

    Some of the startups flourished, most didn't, and some even made the transition from successful startup to successful large business, but not a lot of them.

    It takes a certain kind of person to take a much more difficult road and do a startup. For one thing, it's hard to meet monthly bills! But they also tend to have dreams they believe in. I know; I've done startups, some successful.

    I'm doing one right now.


    Dave Small
  • RE: Could open source have built Silicon Valley?

    Actually you made a slight conceptual error,
    One may Patent an expression of an idea... not the idea itself.
    check on that, it true
  • RE: Could open source have built Silicon Valley?

    Barring language and translation barriers, can ZDnet put a decent grammatical filter in place that blocks silly responses replete with typo's and misspellings? Are YOU ALL twelve?
  • RE: Could open source have built Silicon Valley?

    The real problem here is not the right to sell or be paid for your time but in the destruction of the Patend Process. Yes we all agree that if you spend a large amount of time and effort you should be paid for your work, but, under the Patend Process you can submit a new original idea or improve apon an existing one. This requires Reverse Enginneering, by implementing the current EULA how much innovation has been lost and where could we be as opposed to where we are. The patent process was designed to protect your idea, not all ideas that may come from it. By supporting companies like Microsoft, (there are other examples, I just do not have time to do the research right now) who use an all inclusive anti Reverse Enginneering Eula agreement, we are allowing innovation to be killed. and with that in mind how far along could Silicon Valley be as opposed the where it is right now?

    Please forgive any typos or spelling errors. Thank You.