The Open Source Incline

Arguing against the incline, or trying to argue your way up the incline, is like arguing against gravity.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive

This is the second chapter in my five-part FOSS series. The first chapter was posted yesterday, and can be found here.

One concept I write about a lot here is what I call the Open Source Incline.

It's roughly a right triangle, on a graph. Along one axis is the power a company gives itself in its open source contract. On another is the community involvement generated on behalf of a company's software.

Microsoft sits at the top of that incline. Its Shared Source  license grants it the greatest power of any open source contract on the market. Further down the incline are a variety of BSD-style licenses. Many companies, from Apple to Sun, use a variation on this license for their open source projects.

We're also talking about community contributions vs. scale. Microsoft, being huge, may have more community contributions of code than a start-up. We're talking here of contributions as a function of your user base.

The BSD variants take up a lot of space on this incline, but down near the bottom we find the more open versions, such as the Apache License and the Mozilla License. Gradually, as you move down the incline, the goal of the license shifts, from assuring the supplier control to encouraging contributions, and to allowing contributors to profit from those contributions.

Finally, down at the bottom, we have the GPL. The GPL aims to take questions of profit out of the license equation. Those who add code are obligated, under the GPL, to giving that code back on the same terms. Yet increasingly I'm finding enterprise software companies releasing their own code under the GPL, while still retaining their role as profit-seeking entities. JBoss did it.  Adaptive Planning does it. The list goes on-and-on, and it seems to get longer every week.

One such newcomer is Zenoss, an open source system management firm, where CEO Bill Karpovich describes the process. “The goal is to build the community and to build the product, to drive the downloads and product development.” Zenoss recently got $4.8 million in funding to push forward, under the GPL.

Why? Community contributions. Profit pulls firms up the incline, but community contributions seem to pull them down with equal or greater force. If your company wants to assure itself the maximum community benefit from its open source work, you want the GPL. The GPL also keeps someone from grabbing your code, tweaking it a little, then going into business against you. The question of your code and your business model are divorced.

It's along this incline that a lot of people have trouble. Is freedom maximized when you have the most freedom, when capitalism has the most freedom, or when freedom brings with it an obligation? In a capitalist system, where the goal seems to be profit maximization, the idea that the last delivers the most, that obligating others to free their code gives you the greatest opportunity to profit, is completely counter-intuitive.

And thus we have the political rhetoric. On the one hand, freedom isn't free. On the other, we have the Stallman-bashing. Thus we have open source advocates being called socialists or communists, even people wearing nice suits with multi-million dollar valuations on their names.

But that's the way it is. Arguing against the incline, or trying to argue your way up the incline, is like arguing against gravity. And it is this mind-blowing process, the incline, which is the real open source headline for 2006.

Tomorrow, I'll look briefly at the source of all this confusion, the Internet Business Model itself.

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