IT giants accused of exploiting open source

Major companies that sell open source software have been accused by a top EU official of treating open source developers as mere subcontractors

A senior figure at the European Commission launched an outspoken attack on several major American IT firms on Monday, accusing them of exerting too much influence on the progress of the open source community.

Jesús Villasante, the head of software technologies at the EC's Information Society and Media Directorate General, said that big companies such as IBM, HP and Sun are just using the open source community as subcontractors rather than encouraging the community to develop independent commercial products.

"IBM says to a customer, 'Do you want proprietary or open software?' Then [if they want open source] they say 'OK, you want IBM open source.' It is [always] IBM or Sun or HP open source," asserted Villasante, speaking at a debate on open source innovation at the Holland Open Software Conference in Amsterdam.

"Companies are using the potential of communities as subcontractors — the open source community today [is a] subcontractor of American multinationals," added Villasante, who called on the open source community to develop more independence from these large companies.

"Open source communities need to take themselves seriously and realise they have contribution to themselves and society. From the moment they realise they are part of the evolution of society and try to influence it, we will be moving in the right direction," said Villasante.

Villasante's comments appeared to startle his fellow panellists, including James Baty, a vice-president at Sun. Experts have previously argued that major corporations such as IBM have made a valuable contribution by supporting open source software, as they have helped to persuade businesses and IT professionals that open source software is a credible alternative to proprietary options.

Baty did not respond directly to Villasante's comments, but said that companies such as his have a responsibility to contribute to the open source community. Sun contributes to a number of open source projects, including the open source productivity application

"There are companies that are takers from the open source community, other companies are taking the attitude that they have to contribute," said Baty. "[Open source] should be seen as an opportunity, not as something to capture and abuse."

Villasante used his keynote speech earlier in the day to express concerns about the European software industry.

"What I think is that Europe doesn't have a software industry today — the only one we have today is in America. In the future we may have China or India. We should decide if we will have a European software industry in the future," he said.

Villasante argued that open source is vital to the development of the European software industry, but that its progress has been inhibited by pressure from intellectual-property lobbyists and the traditional software industry, and by the fragmentation of the open source community.

"Open source is a complete mess — many people do lots of different things. There's total confusion today," Villasante said.

A member of the audience pointed out that the European Commission was partly responsible for pushing through the software patent directive, which many believe will damage open source. Villasante responded that not everyone at the EC automatically supports this directive.

"Firstly, I'm not responsible for software patents — the software patent directive is managed by the director general of Internal [Market]. The opinion of the director general of Information Society [the division where Villasante works] is not necessarily the same as the director general of Internal."