CodePlex's Walli: No need to overhaul open source definition, licenses

Stephen Walli weighs in on patents, open core and Microsoft's about-face towards open source

As long as Microsoft exists, there will be those who believe it's the KGB of the open source world, secretly doing everything it can to destroy the free software movement in general and Linux in particular. Microsoft has made so many missteps in regards to open source that you can't blame people for thinking that. But if you use Microsoft products to run your business, and would prefer it and other proprietary vendors (Oracle, IBM) find a better way to interact with open source projects than in a courtroom, you may be interested in the CodePlex Foundation.

Open Source SubnetOpen Source: No one is working for free

This not-for-profit says it wants to help proprietary software vendors engage with open source communities without fear of making licensing mistakes that will have everyone screaming infringement. The group says, "We expect the CodePlex Foundation to be complimentary to, and not competitive with, other open source foundations [i.e. Mozilla, Gnome]. One measure of our success will be if other foundations experience an increase in participation from commercial software developers because of us."

Sounds ho-hum until you realize that the CodePlex Foundation is an independent not-for-profit organization initially funded by Microsoft (but looking for other marquee sponsors ... SAP? CA?). Microsoft executives sit on its advisory boards, along with executives from VMware, SugarCRM, MindTouch and Novell. Some prominent ex-Softies run the foundation, but they are adamant that they do not work for Microsoft. The Foundation does not control CodePlex.com, the source forge hosted by Microsoft to house open source projects.

What the heck? If you work for a company that is secretly and not-so-secretly trying to destroy something, why launch an independent foundation to help you cooperate with the enemy? Please don't tell me that this is all about creating a false public face. It's Microsoft's public face that has folks convinced that it's evil (calling Linux a cancer, forging patent license agreements for Android, and Linux, initiating infringement litigation).

Stephen Walli
So, I got a hold of Stephen Walli (pictured), who recently joined Network World's Open Source Subnet as a blogger. (He writes the Open Minded blog). Walli is Technical Director of the CodePlex Foundation. I asked about some of the controversial issues in the intersection between proprietary and open source. Some highlights: he doesn't think that the open source definition -- or the OSI's licenses -- need a major overhaul; Patents are a necessary reality but "a patent isn't validated until the court battle is over" and these days; "most software isn't created by software companies" but by users. Here's the full Q&A.

There’s been discussion that OSI needs to evolve the definitions of “open source” and improve on licenses … what are your thoughts on that?

I think the OSI went a long way in providing a commercial language of collaborative development to match the political language of software freedom the Free Software Foundation used.  They are different ideas serving different constituencies.  Software freedom talks about the user and political freedoms the user receives.  Open source talks about the license and the definitions the license must support.  They're very complementary ideas, like free markets and free speech.  I don't see a need to evolve the OSD.  

I'm not sure licenses need to be improved in any deliberate way.  We have seen an evolution in software development in general over the past three decades as the industry needs to account for how software IP is handled now.  In the free and open source world that evolution is reflected in the maturation of all licenses we've seen over time, the rise of foundations, and debates we're seeing about contribution agreements.  That's the natural progression in the software industry. 

Most open source developers abhor software patents – what are your thoughts on how open source developers can participate and not be victims of patent litigation threats?

Regardless of what anyone thinks about software patents, they represent a body of IP law with which we need to deal in the United States. Patents are tickets to negotiations. Patent litigation happens when the patent holder feels they're losing revenue or market share or both.  It's unlikely open source developers as individuals would ever be sued because there's no real money there.

Companies using open source projects within their product offerings would need to evaluate any possible threat in the context of their business. We have certainly seen that in the marketplace around Linux.  But even then the business maneuvering and messaging are by no means clear. A patent isn't validated until the court battle is over.  Until we see proof of patent litigation materially effecting FOSS licensed projects and their participants, it's not a real discussion. 

Why do you think that commercial software companies under-participate in open source projects?

Traditional software companies wrestle with the question of whether to build or buy new functionality as they grow their product offerings.  They need to continue to offer new versions with new functionality to grow the license-based revenue stream.  Successful software companies that offer the best products at the right time succeed, and they don't culturally see the need to change as long as the revenue model grows.   

But you have to remember that most software isn't created by software companies.  The Internet changed how we can share software and gave rise to more and more software being available in collaborative buckets of technology.  To build or buy, new (post-Internet) software companies add borrow and share to the mix, and they can base their revenue streams on subscriptions.  It's a different model with a different collaborative culture and different margins.  They don't have the historical revenue base to manage, and they're also faster more agile companies from their initial start.  

I think this tension between the two business models is what causes more traditional software companies to under-participate.  It's different again for why commercial non-software companies under-participate.  

From what you’ve observed, how is Microsoft’s involvement in open source different than other large software vendors that make most of their money off proprietary software?

I think Microsoft was startled early on by the idea of free and open source software.  That meant they began to study the space, initially because they were worried about value erosion and then IP erosion, (neither of which happens), then from the competitive perspective, and finally Microsoft began to understand how customers and newer software companies alike were doing business in the space.  So they evolved from a company that was initially hostile into a company that is now much more knowledgeable themselves and understanding of the market reality for software companies in an Internet-enabled world.

What are your thoughts on “open core” software projects? Where do you think this trend leads?

Vibrant communities of developers and users grow around well managed FOSS projects because the software solves some problem really well. Companies that publish the core of their product under a FOSS license while selling an enhanced binary edition need to consider carefully the needs of any  communities they encourage around the project as they develop their customer pipeline around the product. This is a tough business problem that requires really clear and consistent internal and external communications to all the groups involved.  It also requires the company to understand that community members have a lot of value to contribute to the business but aren't directly customers.

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