Open Source and Open Markets

Published August 1, 2005

The Open Source Business Conference held recently in San Francisco was chock-full of information on how to make money using open source software. Once a bastion for socialist thinking, the open source community is finally coming of age.

Usually, open source software products are free of charge and permit many different individuals to alter the code. For instance, the Firefox Web browser, which can be used instead of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, is an open source product. But while open source is available for all to see, there’s money to be made through service and support packages, as well as through some open source licenses that allow complimentary propriety products to be created and sold.

With big tech companies like Sun Microsystems, Microsoft, Novell, Oracle, Intel, and Dell sponsoring the conference, it was perhaps not surprising that the number of suited participants equaled or outnumbered those sporting jeans and tattoos. A movement that began with computer programmer Richard Stallman’s ideology of socialized software is growing up and taking the competitive–and profit-enhancing–advantages of open source seriously. Even Microsoft, long resistant to the idea of open source, dispatched a representative to outline the lessons that can be drawn from open source software.

Jason Matusow, director of Microsoft’s Shared Source initiatives, said key benefits of open source are increased community involvement and trust. According to Matusow, most product groups at Microsoft now have the opportunity to decide if the code they produce will be open source or proprietary, with the core bit often being proprietary and the rest of it open source.

But even while the profit motive burns through the open source community, there are still some who cling to notions associated with open source-thought version 1.0.

Beyond ‘Non-Ownership’

SpikeSource CEO Kim Polese argued that one of the great things about open source is that no one owns it–a throwback to Stallman’s free software message. But as the movement has matured, it’s become clearer that even if there is no property title to a piece of code, there are still rules that control its use. Ultimately, ownership is about control. Washington University law professor Scott Kieff made that point in a debate sponsored by the Federalist Society that took place in Silicon Valley on the heels of the Open Source Business Conference.

Open source property actually does exist in the form of things like fame, Kieff said, characteristics that are more inflexible and less transferable than regular property, making everyone worse off. His example was Linus Torvalds and his Linux gang, whose decisions about the direction of the popular open source operating system carry more weight than other programmers’ work for no reason other than they hang with the right social group.

Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, who debated Kieff and also spoke at the Open Source Business Conference, expressed worry about property rights going too far and said he believes the open source community needs to fight on a political level to stay healthy. “To the extent that you succeed, other people fail,” he warned the audience.

But software development isn’t a zero-sum game, and bringing Congress into the mix is a dangerous idea that most developers instinctively resist.

The open source community is evolving in a positive way, and the best thing governments can do is relax and let the marketplace shape the future. Linux is firmly entrenched in the commercial market. The explosive popularity of the Firefox browser shook up Microsoft more than any state attorney general’s antitrust bluster could have, forcing the software giant to delay the introduction of, and rethink its strategy for, its Longhorn operating system.

When governments try to guess what path is best for technology development, politics invariably gets in the way of clear thinking. Take, for example, the move by some governments to mandate the use of open source software instead of proprietary systems in government offices. (See “Minnesota Botches IT Bill,” IT&T News, June 2005.)

Government agencies should have the choice of what type of software products to use. But when the decision is based on politics rather than the actual requirements of a particular government agency, efficiency and cost questions are certain to follow.

The Open Source Business Conference demonstrated that capitalists have finally discovered a new way to think about software development. For innovation and economic growth to continue, calls for government intervention should be dismissed. Open source products require an open marketplace.

Sonia Arrison ([email protected]) is director of technology studies at the Pacific Research Institute. Reproduced with permission of TechNewsWorld and ECT News Network.