Should we fight the proprietary open source power?

Should we fight the proprietary open source power?

Summary: In open source, however, at least you can see the code, add your fix, add your feature, tell your friends, blog about it, put it on your Web site and hope, through the magic of Google, it's found by those who need it.

TOPICS: Open Source, IBM

John EdwardsMr. Buzzword for February appears to be proprietary open source.

This is an open source project which is owned or controlled by one company. Even though it may have a GPL license, you have no more power over it than a single voter in a political system.

The definition has changed since I first wrote the Open Source Incline back in 2006. It's now a development model, not a licensing model.

But the intent is still the same, and the impact similar, as Savio Rodrigues notes. In the proprietary model your own features and bug fixes may be ignored by the project's "owner" so what's the use?

You have even less control over the project's business model. If the "owner" wants to let someone do a proprietary fork which undermines your work, there may be little you can do. Especially if you happen to work for said owner.

Few of us come to this debate with clean hands, because we all like to eat and have roofs over our heads. Savio, whose post started this thread, works at IBM, which through Eclipse offers a different model.

And Big Blue also must eat, as a commenter e-mailed me after I praised IBM's Jazz contributions. They do want to lock people into buying Rational tools, he said, and open source is a means to that end.

Even my own objectivity can be sullied by my desire to eat well. I avoid topics involving ZDNet, C|Net and my wife's employer for that reason. I may tilt at windmills here, but some windmills are more equal than others.

Which is sort of the point. As projects, or blogs, scale, they have to become group efforts, and a successful effort requires some sort of business model to pay the bills. Everyone must compromise. Someone must rule.

As time goes by, moreover, we all have to get big or get out. I supported John Edwards on my personal blog but when any market narrows you have to accept your second choice, or your third, and hope for the best.

In open source, however, at least you can see the code, add your fix, add your feature, tell your friends, blog about it, put it on your Web site and hope, through the magic of Google, it's found by those who need it.

That's a big achievement. That's reform. That pushes history forward just a little bit.

Which is all any of us can legitimately ask for.

Topics: Open Source, IBM

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • There's a huge difference between this and closed proprietary

    Using the example in your link, if Red Hat refuses support because I change the source code, I still have the source code, and I can still find a competitor who is more willing to play ball. I'm generally okay with these companies because they are upfront about the services they provide, and that kind of honesty is all you can really expect out of service providers (along with how well they do the things they are willing to do for you). You know upfront what you they will provide, and if it does not meet your needs you can take the ball and find another player.

    And remember, you get what you pay for. The software code may be free as in beer, but an overall software solution never is. With Red Hat you pay for cookie cutter results. If you need hand crafted results you need to pony up for that.
    Michael Kelly
    • I agree...

      Free as in beer only gets you beer. You want a special hand-crafted ale, you need to make it yourself.
  • Can always branch out of the closed open source

    It is difficult to do so, beacause with it goes also all the development resources invested by the project owner, and also because having all existing user switch to the branched software is not an easy feat. However if the project owner abuses its position that can be done.

    One exampel of it is XviD which was branched out of one of the last open soruce version of divx, I my recolections are not failing me.
  • Is this really much different than any other open source project?

    Nearly all open source projects are controlled by a single individual or a small group, and there is no guarantee that they will accept your changes if you are not part of that group. As an obvious example, the official Linux kernel is controlled by Linus Torvalds with substantial support from a small group of trusted lieutenants. There are several branches supported by other people, usually more as testbeds, but many of the distributions also include code not in the official kernel for various reasons, including supporting a wider range of hardware.

    And as another example of a successful fork when the original developers changed policies, consider XFree86 and XFree86 was the default X server in most Linux distributions for many years, but when they changed their license terms to something most of the community found unacceptable it wasn't long before XFree86 was replaced by, and I'm not aware of whether XFree86 even still exists.
    • Go back to my incline

      You will find a link to my open source development incline piece embedded in this piece.

      In it I postulate that, the more interests involved in a project, and the more transparent the operation of the project, the more inclined people will be over the long run to support it with their own code and bug contributions.

      I do not prove my case. I think this is the experiment which is now ongoing within the marketplace.

      Thanks for writing.
  • Pointless ...

    So what is the point here? That large commercial interests are allowed to "control" GPL software? The fact is, that is simply not true. The fact is that the person or company that PAYS for the development gets to determine what gets developed and how it gets licensed. What on earth is wrong with that concept? Sure it can end up in proprietary extensions and all sorts of inconveniences, but until we as a society determine that it is OK to give away the property of others (commonly referred to as "communism", those inconveniences will remain. And don't get me wrong. I am a Linux user and an advocate of the GPL. But I strongly reject the argument that commercial interests are somehow "corrupting" the intent of the GPL by pumping big money into GPL based projects. The fact is, this is exactly how the GPL was intended to function. There ARE some problems with patents, and the main focus of the latest GPL revision was formulated to address those issues. But other than that, commercial support of GPL software is almost totally a positive thing. Without that support, many of these projects wouldn't be happening, at least not at the level they currently are. ANYONE who really wants to have a say in GPL development can have either by putting up money or investing time and talent appropriately. NOBODY is locked out. Enough with the hand wringing already.
    George Mitchell
    • I have to agree

      I use a handful of open-source development tools in my programming. All of them are developed and maintained--"controlled", if you will--by organizations and come in "official," proprietary versions. They still have strong support from their user base. I remember reporting a bug once on the message board for one of these tools. The guy from the company said he'd logged it and he'd look at fixing it. Within two days, some other ordinary coder like me had posted a patch on the message board, and I wouldn't be surprised if, when the "official" version comes, the developer has simply taken this patch and integrated it into the codebase.

      That's how it's supposed to work. It ain't broke; no need to fix it.
  • Yawn. Wake me when there's a real story [nt]

  • Do we need to fight?

    The beauty of Open Source is - you don't like what the current maintainer is doing (and the "proprietory open source" owners are just that) - you're free to create your own "fork" of the project.
    If Sun does something with MySQL that the community will not be happy about, there's nothing to stop the community to take MySQL code and write "OurSQL" or whatever based on it.
  • GPL is propriatory software

    From a legal point of view GPL:ed software is propriatory software, i.e. there is someone that holds the rigths to it. If that someone is a company or a number of individual developers doen't matter. If you don't like it, you can always fork as long as you do it in a way that is allowed by the GPL.

    The advantage of having large companies as owners is that they may have a better chance to hire developers to improve the software.
  • Embrace the Necessity

    I work full-time for an open source project, ICEcore (, and find myself hungry often:-) The time I spend in support of this project would not be possible without commercial backing from SiteScape and Novell. Commercial support is necessary for open source to compete with commercial products as the complexity of the project grows. Commercial support adds important features like monetary support and full-time resources to projects which are required when the complexity of a feature or product becomes difficult for isolated developers to create and maintain. This is not to say that software should be closed, open is always better from a reliability and stability standpoint, but that commercial support is a necessity at some point and done correctly can create very extensible products.