Call it serendipity, chance, or happenstance, but it’s odd that I’ve found two posts today that both claim open source software is torpedoing the software business.
The first, a suit filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, claims that the GNU General Public License (GPL) restrains trade “by way of a contract licensing scheme to artificially fix prices of computer software products” at zero. The plaintiff in the suit, Mr. Daniel Wallace, also claims that the GPL “denies[ him] an opportunity to earn future revenue in the field of computer programming,” and asks for injunctive relief. The defendants in the suite are the Free Software Foundation, Novell, Red Hat, and IBM.
The second, an opinion posted on the British Computer Society web site (http://www.bcs.org/BCS/Products/publishing/itnow/OnlineArchive/sep05/itnowextra/memberview.htm
), claims that open source is a “nightmare scenario of[ open source] at one extreme and Microsoft at the other, with nothing else in between.” The author, Stephen J. Marshall, ends with, “What we need[ is] government… assistance to combat the threat to the[ software] industry’s livelihood that[ open source] might pose…”
I don’t think Mr. Wallace’s case holds any merit. The GPL is not law — it’s a license, a contract voluntarily entered into by the licensor (the author) and licensee. And, after all, the GPL keeps software “free, as in speech,” not “free, as in beer.” There are plenty of examples of independent open source software vendors generating profit.
Marshall has a more alturistic goal, encouraging us “to examine some of the issues[ about] open source software that aren’t normally aired in public.”
He correctly mentions that an individual must have the necessary rights to contribute his or her intellectual property to open source projects. However, he surmises, “that the only people… actually free to participate in[ open source] projects are self-employed or unemployed software professionals, students, and enthusiastic amateurs.” He observes “the[ open source] method of software development…[ concentrates] on fixing things once the design is implemented in code,” and adds, “The open source movement, with its hacker ethic, doesn’t promote professionalism.”
At this point, I bet you’re either laughing hysterically or crying inconsolably.
Certainly, many open source projects are hobbies; some code is better than others; and many open source projects fail due to lack of interest or lack of quality (just like commercial products). Others, however, engage professionals (Torvalds, Morton, Lerdorf, to name three), have extremely proud, careful, and thoughtful developer communities (for example, Perl), and are competing against large corporate rivals (think MySQL vs. Microsoft, Oracle, IBM).
In fact, after nearly twenty years in and around the software industry, I cannot remember a time when software development was as vital, engaging, and influential as it is now. Developers working on all platforms — Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux — continue to create innovative new products, both proprietary and open source; competition is healthy; and yes, open source is upending the status quo.
But there’s no entitlement for open source. The high-tech mantra still applies: innovate or die.