Open Source: Who Takes But Doesn't Give Back?

Posted by salparadise on May 6, 2006 1:22 AM EDT
Information Week Weblog; By Charles Babcock
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Do the companies that benefit the most from open-source code give anything back to the community? That's a provocative question that comes up when you take a close look at how prominent open-source projects actually work. I don't want to point any fingers, but what about the banks and financial services firms? How much do they give back?

Do the companies that benefit the most from open-source code give anything back to the projects that create it? We could probably ask the question of any member of the Fortune 500 that's not a technology company tying its products to open source. But let me direct the inquiry to banks and financial services firms on Wall Street. Let's start there. They've taken a shine to Linux and other open-source code lately.

InformationWeek is trying to find out who the volunteer open-source code contributors are. Who are the people--in addition to Linux's kernel originator, Linus Torvalds--who program into the night and donate the results to an ongoing, software building project. Whoever they are, they're changing the landscape for business.

The answer, based on a snapshot survey, is talented, highly motivated individuals, often in startups or small companies, or independent consultants and custom programmers, programming another round after already having done a day's work. They work on open-source code for the satisfaction of it.

Take Bruce Momjian, list manager of the PostgreSQL project. He works from home, was once a programmer for a small firm building custom database applications for law firms, and has worked as a database consultant. He helps supervise the contributions to PostgreSQL, which has become a thriving open-source project with 243 contributors in a typical year.

But Momjian made a provocative comment. "I don't have any contributors from New York City," he said, after citing the many contributions he receives from the outlying provinces, from Europe and elsewhere.

Chase Phillips, a volunteer contributor to both Mozilla and the Champaign/Urbana Community Wireless Network project, thinks developers inside large corporations are constrained by their firm's intellectual property vigilance. If you work for a big company, you can't just send code willy-nilly out the door, no matter what you claim about it having nothing to do with work.

Momjian thinks there are other cultural constraints that inhibit contributions coming from large corporations. What do you think?

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