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Hackers still important, Red Hat exec says

By , IDG News Service
August 29, 2006 09:29 AM ET

IDG News Service - Volunteer hackers still play an important role in open source software development despite the many companies that pay developers to work on open source products, according to Michael Tiemann, Red Hat's vice president of open source affairs.

Tiemann, who is also president and a member of the board at the Open Source Initiative, a nonprofit organization that promotes open source software, was in India last week to address a symposium on the impact of intellectual property laws on innovation and progress. In a telephone interview from Delhi, Tiemann talked to IDG News Service on a wide range of issues relating to the open source movement. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.

IDGNS: There is a perception that the hacker culture is disappearing from open source development, as a result of corporate participation and corporate priorities in open source development.

Tiemann: The hacker community has always been doing its work from the margins. That does not mean that it wasn't important in the past, and it does not mean it won't be important in the future. But it remains non-mainstream. At the same time, the commercial community has benefited tremendously from rebellious hackers. When a hacker points out that a particular protocol has great security weaknesses, the commercial community who pays attention to that is better for it. The commercial community who attempts to cover it up, or deny it, ultimately puts more people at risk.

IDGNS: Is there something that the OSI can do to make hackers feel more comfortable in the changed open source environment, where large companies like IBM have deployed employees paid to do open source development?

Tiemann: The fact that IBM has a large team doing open source development is great, and many of the people doing that work for IBM are hackers. They are renegades that just happen to get their pay-checks from IBM. Of course there are some very conventional people who are also getting pay checks, and I don't think it makes it any worse.

I think the reason why open source has not been corrupted by capital is because capital is almost irrelevant to open source. If you look at an industry like the railroad, before a single unit of value can be delivered you need immense capital to build the railroad bed, and to build the trains and the stations. In the case of software, value can be delivered on a highly incremental basis. So the most important thing in software is not financial capital but intellectual capital.

When you look at open-source development from the perspective of intellectual capital, there is no company on earth whose financial capital can be remotely relevant to the intellectual capital potential of the world. The investment by IBM and other companies (in intellectual capital) is such a small drop in the bucket. That is why it has not corrupted, and cannot corrupt, open source.

IDGNS: Once large commercial interests get involved in open source, isn't there a risk of their creating barriers to entry and forking, for example ?

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