Monday, March 05, 2007

Eric Raymond: Yes, "open source" is still meaningful

Mar. 01, 2007

Writing in O'Reilly's Radar, Nat Torkington argues that the term "open source" is becoming meaningless. He points to SugarCRM's badgeware, through which, he claims, only two-thirds of their code is downloadable, and rPath and MontaVista, which "sell software that works on Linux but the software itself isn't actually open source."

Open-source leader Eric S. Raymond replied to Torkington's essay in a letter to O'Reilly and several journalists, in which he asserted that the open source "label is still valid and important. I'm a pragmatist, so I'm not going to wave any flags or sing any anthems to argue this, just point out what has worked and continues to work."

"First of all, let's be clear about what 'open source' means," Raymond writes. "Software is 'open source' when it is issued under a license compliant with the Open Source Definition (OSD). Nothing any clueless or malevolent corporate marketer does can change that, because the term originated in the open-source developer community and only we have the authority to redefine it.

"If this seems excessively prescriptive to some readers, consider what would happen if a marketer tried to redefine the term 'electron' to mean 'proton', or 'big lump of green cheese', or something. This would instantly be recognized as absurd -- physicists own that term, and only they have the authority to redefine it," continues Raymond.

"Many of you know I'm a lexicographer as well as a hacker," Raymond has for many years been the maintainer of The New Hacker's Dictionary, which is available both online and from MIT Press. "I can tell you what people who make dictionaries think about controversies like this -- that technical terms of art belong to the expert communities that define them. Only *we*, the open-source community, get to redefine 'open source'," continued Raymond.

"And, occasionally, we do redefine it. OSI, the Open Source Initiative, added a tenth clause to the OSD a few years back to deal with click-wrap licensing. Right now, OSI is contemplating changes to deal with badgeware licenses of the kind Nat complains about. In doing so, OSI serves our entire community, and anyone get involved in the process through its license-discuss list."

Some companies, such as Alfresco Software, are already moving away from badgeware versions of the MPL (Mozilla Public License). In its case, Alfresco is going to the GPLv2.

"Normal evolution of the term within its defining community is one thing," explained Raymond. "Accidental or deliberate abuse of the term is another, and should be recognized and treated as such through education and persuasion and the occasional smack upside the head. Abuse is not a reason to abandon the term 'open source' any more than some fool babbling about big lumps of green cheese would be a reason to abandon the term 'electron'."

"Rather, abuse is a reason to *defend* and *explain* the term, so that it will continue to have a useful meaning. OSI does that. Nat's post amounts to asking if the community should give up the effort. I say certainly not. The only reason to abandon the term 'open source' would be if it no longer served a useful purpose, and there are at least two very large useful purposes that it does serve," said Raymond.

The OSI, which has been rather quiet lately, is becoming more active in attacking those who misuse the term.

According to Intel's senior director of open-source strategy and the OSI's secretary/treasurer, Danese Cooper, the OSI is aware that "Open Source is a big buzzword again now, and yes there are those (as there have been from the beginning) who are trying to understand how they can embroider over the edges of Open Source to achieve business goals nearly but perhaps not perfectly aligned with the spirit of the Open Source Definition."

Raymond continued: "Do we really need a reminder of why lots of people jumped on it in 1998? We had an image problem with people outside our community, especially businesses and governments. 'Free software' frightened them away; I thought 'open source' might attract them. Those of us who originally took the initiative in pushing it promoted 'open source' as a cold-blooded exercise in rebranding, and that worked; our community has ridden the label to levels of acceptance we barely could have dreamed of nine years ago."

"And guess what -- 'free software' *still* has an image problem, if only because the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has responded to the success of the 'open source' label by taking a position that is more purist, more territorial, *and thus more frightening*. By doing this FSF has ironically ensured that 'open source' would remain a necessary marketing hack in our community's relations with the rest of the world," declared Raymond.

Raymond isn't the only one who sees the FSF in this way. Some of the Linux kernel core developers strongly object to the FSF's proposed GPLv3. Others, such as Linux observer Bill Weinberg, believe that the GPLv3 threatens to fork GNU projects and marginalize the FSF.

Raymond continued, "But I think the more important purpose of the term 'open source' is not as a marketing hack but as a deliberately inclusive term for the entirety of a history and a culture that transcends any of our narrow internecine disputes about licensing and propaganda. Neither the FSF nor the OSI is the axis of that history."

"Our community didn't spring full-blown from Linus Torvalds's head, nor from Richard Stallman's, nor (perish the thought!) from mine," added Raymond. It includes 'free software' developers, but also tribes like those around BSD and X that are not centered on the GPL and rejected the term 'free software' with all its ideological baggage. And it includes many more to whom the GPL/anti-GPL dispute matters only a little if at all."

"'Open source' also properly includes a lot of pre-FSF history like the early IETF [Internet Engineering Task Force] and the Tech Model Railroad Club," continued Raymond. "It's now used retrospectively by people who lived that history. I have gradually come to understand that year zero of our movement wasn't 1985, the year FSF was founded. I now think perhaps it was 1961, the year MIT took delivery of the first PDP-1 and the earliest group of self-described 'hackers' coalesced around it."

Steven Levy's Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, is the best history of this period. It covers from those early days of the Tech Model Railroad Club to the first hackers, to Stallman, who Levy called the last of the true hackers.

"Adopting a more inclusive term for all this was good magic; it pulled people together, helping them recognize common ground and a common way of thinking and working," Raymond added. "I think this (unanticipated) effect on the hacker community's conception of itself turned out to be as important as the rebranding effects on the rest of the world, if not more so."

Raymond concluded, "The flip side is that if not for 'open source', the community we cherish would be a significantly poorer, smaller, and more fractured place today. That's reason enough to keep it."

-- Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols
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