Beware of Those Calling Themselves Open Source

Posted by tadelste on Mar 30, 2006 5:21 AM EDT
Lxer; By Tom Adelstein
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Free software is software that anybody can use, copy, modify and redistribute freely without having to ask for authorization from anyone. Some companies think that using the open source label will fool the unsuspecting into believing they're part of the community. Just try redistributing their software and see what happens.

If you sat on this end of the journalistic seesaw instead of the reader's side, you might understand the perspective. I see a world running amok with members of the technology ecosystem using terms they do not understand. I cannot imagine the people responsible for GNU/Linux expecting the outcomes we experience today. You can confuse the public, just call yourself Open Source.

Aside from the commercial end of the industry, we have had people making up acronyms like FOSS, FLOSS and who knows what else. For those unfamiliar with the acronyms, FOSS means Free Open Source and FLOSS means Free Libre Open Source Software. Throwing those terms around has become the "in thing".

You know when something becomes posh that you can starting counting the days before it becomes a cliché. Unwitting companies could easily ruin the reputation the public does not understand anyway. We have reached a time when closing down the OSI website might make sense.

I wish people would discontinue the use of term Open Source. It doesn't represent our community any more, if it ever did. Let's look at the intent versus what has happened.

Some perspective

I remember a time when I embraced the concept of open source software. While participating on a web cast with Eric Raymond and Richard Stallman, I heard the latter person say he never worked on any open source software. At the time, I thought he was splitting hairs. Now I appreciate his perspective.

I can live with Free Software but I have some trouble with open source the way I perceive most people using the term. I see too many press releases and articles submitted here that use the term frivolously. I read those stories and roll my eyes. I'm sure we will soon see a new line of designer clothes on Rodeo Drive called open source. They will open the erogenous zones of the rich and famous even more than they do now.

Back to basics, please

Free Software advocates saw a time when distributions of GNU/Linux had to include libraries and processes that used a variety of licenses that did not comply with the GPL. The Apache, Perl and Sendmail licenses provide some examples.

When the National Science Foundation dumped NSFnet on the public, lots of software came along with it. To accommodate the gifts heaped on the technology industry, licenses became important issues. Those licenses existed in a context of open standards compliance promulgated by Internet Engineering Task Force.

Culling through existing Internet software became a challenging task. Regardless, the concept of Free Software promulgated the thinking. The US government had funded many projects that wound up in places like the OpenLDAP Foundation.

Researchers from the University of Michigan developed the original version of LDAP circa 1993. The IETF issued approximately 20 RFCs related to the protocol. Eventually the project like many others went into a Foundation.

The National Science Foundation originally intended for the slew of projects opened to the public to become part of the structure of the Super Information Highway. Coincidentally, the Free Software Foundation and the Linux kernel project merged into the perception of this "gift" from the government.

I always considered the gift as a way for the US Government to rid itself of the expense of keeping up the DARPA, ARPA, NFSnet. The parties to the cold war called it quits, the Soviet Union broke up and we didn't need a back up communication network in case of Nuclear attacks. So, the government handed the network over to people like MCI, BBN Planet, UUNet and others.

Now, that's my perception of what happened leaving out lots of details. We got this gift, people bought modems, ISPs started up everywhere and suddenly lots of people were "on-line".

The Free Internet morphs

Instead of using the GNU/Linux distribution licensing model, a group of technologists created the "open source" label. The group included Todd Anderson, Chris Peterson, John Hall, Larry Augustin, Sam Ockman and Eric Raymond. They had a strategy session in Palo Alto, California and decided to begin the Open Source Initiative.

I suppose they wanted to provide a way to allow a distribution of Linux to include software using a variety of licenses. One way that could have eliminated the need for the OSI included dual licensing. But the need for such licensing became academic because commercial distributors like SuSE simply put Free Software and commercial software together and sold it.

Even though companies like SuSE, Red Hat, Caldera, Mandrakesoft and others began distributing a mixture of Linux, GNU and other licensed software, people still considered the distribution free software as in freedom to use it.

Free Software Morphs

So what has the Open Source Initiative created? Unfortunately, another form of software emerged that does not embrace precepts of the GPL, BSD style licensing and the Free Internet. In fact, we have a hodge podge of proprietary companies disguising software does not come anywhere close to the concept of "freedom".

French telecom has a nice explanation of what free software means:

To understand free software correctly, certain ambiguities of the language tied to the problem of translating English expressions must first be cleared up. In fact, Anglo-Saxons use the same "free" term to describe two fundamentally different notions: freedom of use and free of charge use. However, software may be accessed without restrictions but not used free of charge (several companies sell the Linux operating system) or, on the contrary, free of charge but not unrestricted use (e.g.: the audio Real Player reader from Real Networks).

Thus, Freeware must be distinguished from free software. The glossary provided [in the linked document] will prove useful in differentiating from among commercial software , proprietary software , shareware, free software, open source software , public domain software and copylefted software.

At this stage, we will simply remember a definition for free software: software that anybody can use, copy, modify and redistribute freely without having to ask for authorization from anyone.

It's this unfree software that some people have self-styled as open source that creates confusion. If people would follow the lead of someone like JBoss who licensed their code under the lesser GPL, then the concept would work. JBoss is software that anybody can use, copy, modify and redistribute freely without having to ask for authorization from anyone.

Open-xchange, for example, does not fit the category of software that anybody can use, copy, modify and redistribute freely without having to ask for authorization from anyone. I hope you understand the distinction here. Understanding this concept becomes important to understanding when someone can call him/herself an open source company but "no" act like one.

Should we end the Open Source Initiative now?

Hopefully, enough free software advocates can understand how the term open source can and has been abused. I could live with the term if it actually meant what free software means. In this age of posh expressions, someone can easily confuse the end user.

With many opinion leaders praising the open source software movement, I have serious concerns about how the concept of freedom will turn out in the public mind. Finding 50 or more press releases and article submissions on my desk each day that have little to do with free software concerns me.

If you decided to read this article to this point, I would bet you have the same concerns as me. That's why we call ourselves a community: The Free Software community.

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