Jon Hall: Open source should be protected from 'looters'

Linux User Expo: A well-known open-source advocate compares SCO's Linux lawsuit to the theft of Iraq's national treasures
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

The open-source development community is an international treasure and should be protected as such, said veteran Linux advocate Jon "Maddog" Hall, in a talk in Birmingham that emphasised the role of open-source software outside the US.

Hall's speech on Tuesday morning kicked off the Linux User and Developer Expo 2003, which is taking place this year in conjunction with Networks for Business (formerly Networks Telecom). The conference is tapping into growing interest in Linux and open-source software in the UK, where the government has committed to expanding the role of open source in the public sector, and some public authorities have already purchased significant Linux installations.

Hall compared the ongoing legal battle between The SCO Group and the open-source community to the looting of Iraq's national treasures following the recent war in the Gulf.

"These treasures were created over tens of thousands of years, and all of a sudden, because of the lack of foresight of a few greedy people, a lot of them were removed from the world," he said. "The world has to decide whether or not to send in troops to guard this free and open-source software, to protect it for the world's use."

"Free" or open-source software differs from what Hall characterised as assembly line proprietary products in that no one company controls its intellectual property, allowing it to be customised for the needs of individual users or businesses. This approach can have massive benefits outside the US -- the country where most proprietary software originates -- allowing greater price flexibility and a focus on specialised needs, Hall argued.

He used the example of a Brazilian bank that was able to retrofit its old cashpoint hardware with inexpensive Linux software as an alternative to purchasing expensive software licences and new machines. Because open-source software can be altered and maintained by anyone, support was provided by local engineers, creating Brazilian jobs, Hall said.

"If you're a global company, you can sign a support deal with a company like IBM. If you're a small firm, you might find you can get your support from a recently graduated college student just down the street," he said.

Open-source software has become increasingly attractive to governments in Europe and elsewhere because of what is seen as the potential for local job creation. The city of Munich, for example, recently bought an installation of several thousand Linux desktops from German Linux vendor SuSE.

By contrast, proprietary software forces a one-size-fits-all philosophy that is proving ill-equipped to provide for the needs of an increasingly large and diverse international user base, Hall argued.

"Today, people cannot get a workaround or a bug fix for the software they have paid for. This is a sad comment on the way we think about software," he said.

Critics charge that Linux is a step backward, and point out that the rise of commodity, identical software has helped spur the growth of the computing industry. Hall acknowledged that the open-source model is a throwback, but said there are plenty of reasons why this is not a bad thing.

"Every person's problem is different, and to try and fix those problems with commodity software is very difficult," he said.

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