Story: Time to Cull Proprietary Software from Open Source BrandingTotal Replies: 0
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Mar 18, 2006
2:56 PM EDT
T. Adelstein writes: "If someone wants to contribute software, let them make it GPL or otherwise, it shouldn't get the benefit of the branding. Opening source code alone doesn't give someone the benefits found in the GNU/Linux model."

The last sentence in that quote is very significant yet very often overlooked by such businesses looking to hitch a ride on the "Open Source Craze". There are a lot of businesses which take a cursory look at open source and see only a way to exploit it for lower maintenance costs. They may be free to do this, but it's not a very bright business proposition.

A business which "gets it" would understand that leveraging the benefits of the open source model goes far beyond simply jumping on the teeter-totter and letting the other guys do the work. By routinely and actively contributing to an open source project, a business multiplies its efforts to evolve that code to fit problems. By applying that project to customer needs, a business exposes the project to a wider audience and problem set. Feedback to the project helps that project improve.

The GPL, arguably the best-of-breed among open source licenses, does not distinguish among the users that it protects. This means that a business receives just as much protection as an individual by the GPL. A business which invests in contributing to a GPL project is assured that its competitors are precluded from taking those contributions and locking them up within some proprietary, secret derivative. This is why multiple competitors may contribute to a GPL project and all will gain.

It may be helpful to look at IBM as a corporate contributor to a GPL project, since they very publicly invested $1 billion in advertising Linux, even though it is freely obtainable software. IBM contributes to Linux, knowing that it also assists IBM's competitors, but knowing that IBM's contributions cannot be stolen by those competitors. Those contributions help IBM solve their customers' problems using Linux. Failing to contribute would result in a less worthy, slower advancing Linux that would cause greater costs to IBM than the contributions. Having Linux useful to a great many people helps get it exposed to more situations which in turn helps improve its ability to be applied to a larger overall group of potential customers. I can't speak for IBM but it appears, from IBM's point of view, this yields a much better base to which they can contribute to make it better fit the problems they see among their own customers. They can enlarge the "niche" that Linux fits so that their potential customer base expands.

Linux, GNU, and all GPL projects are really the "Stone Soup" method of building software. While you are not denied being served from the pot, the soup is made better by contributing.

Leaping back to the teeter-totter (called a see-saw in my part of the world) analogy, freeloaders who are not active in a project may one day discover they are left alone. Active participation helps keep a project alive. An active, advancing project is more likely to attract the interest of others, who may then find their own reasons for contributing.

Large freeloaders, in their selfish ignorance, may find that a GPL project takes a turn in direction that renders it unhelpful to them. Large contributors, acting in enlightened self-interest, may assist the project in better enabling them to solve their customers' problems. This leaves the contributor with a competitive edge over the freeloader.

The freeloader is prevented by law from taking the GPL contributions, making proprietary derivatives, and distributing those derivatives as solutions to its customers' problems. The freeloader is left with using the same base as its contributing competitor or creating its solutions completely from scratch. One way leaves it always following and the other way leads to higher costs and less robust software. Greedy exploitation leaves the freeloader disadvantaged.

Meanwhile, the contributor has gained goodwill among other contributors to the project and is more likely to be listened to when requesting modifications that more closely fit problems its customers encounter. The contributor feeds back bug reports from its customers to the project, leading to more robust software. Less time and developer effort is needed to support existing customers and more of each may be applied to expanding the potential customer base. Contributions to GPL projects are magnified.

It's not hard to figure out, at all. More contributions yields more in return. Freeloading will result in a project that is less suitable for the freeloader's use and may yield an abandoned, obsolete project.

I think this process will do some culling, over time. Masquerades don't last forever.

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