☝ Private Agreements Harm Communities

I pointed yesterday to an interesting comment about contributor agreements attached to a report about Michael Meeks speech a LPC. Another comment to the same article by Meeks himself casts light on another, much more serious issue for open source communities; bilateral agreements.

Read on at ComputerWorldUK.

☝ Contributor Agreements Say You’re Not Welcome

The conversation around LWN’s coverage of Michael Meeks’ talk at the Linux Plumbers Conference (sadly paywalled until now but available today and worth reading all the way through) provoked interesting comments. The subject of the discussion is LibreOffice and the code ownership issues which provoked the fork. But what caught my eye was a comment from Josh Berkus describing his consulting experiences.

Read on over at ComputerWorldUK.

☝ RAND: Not So Reasonable

Fair, Reasonable, Non-Discriminatory – surely that all has to be good stuff?  RAND sounds so good. It shows up in the negotiation of licenses for patents that apply to standards, and it stands for “Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory“, excellent words that it’s hard to criticise. Sometimes it shows up as FRAND, with “Fair” in front making it sound even better, or as RAND-z, with the Z indicating that whatever the license terms are they will have a zero pounds price ticket attached.

Great though it all sounds, it has sinister consequences. Read more on ComputerWorldUK

★ The King Is Dead, Long Live The King

I wrote last week about the end of the “open source bubble”:

“The anomaly is not that projects like Hadoop or OpenStack lack a company ‘monetising’ them – it’s that we believe open source projects ought to have such a company. The past decade has been something of an ‘open source bubble’, with many people believing there is a fortune to be made if only they can find the right business model to pack around open source.”

Matthew Aslett of The 451 followed up with a blog post that describes what I called “the open source bubble” as open source 3.0. He agrees it’s ceding prominence in favour of what he calls “open source 4.0” or corporate-dominated (but not controlled) collaborative development communities.

He notes he’s adjusting his predictions in the light of the changed environment for corporate engagement in open source. For example, NASA is collaborating in the OpenStack cloud computing project, and Adobe’s purchase of Day Software gives them an important involvement in the Apache Software Foundations without any direct control.

Aslett describes this as the coming “golden age of open source” and it certainly reflects the reality I am observing at the leading edge of open source activity. As Thomas Prowse comments this does not mean the demise of the model where a single company attempts to use open source as a vehicle for its aspirations. Nor does it necessarily harm existing activities.

But I would argue that new attempts to do this need careful scrutiny, and I expect to see very few of them. Attempts to control and constrain an open source community will more and more been seen as a failure to embrace the ‘open source way’ and the network effects is creates. Where new businesses do arise, I expect to see them using elements from the collaborative community model to ensure that their engagement involves influence and not attempts at control.

This return to the core engagement in co-development in transparent communities is very welcome. Software freedom matters, and this approach leverages rather challenges it. So the bubble is over, and open source will live on stronger than ever – “the King is dead, long live the King”.

[First published on ComputerWorldUK]

✭ Is the “Open Source Bubble” Over?

I was pleased to be able to attend this year’s OSCON, O’Reilly Media’s open source convention held once again in Portland, Oregon in mid-July. There have been numerous reports about it, not least from the New York Times, but one that caught my eye was the meta-analysis from analyst Stephen O’Grady. O’Grady is characteristically detail-rich and his article is packed with Google Trends graphs, but this quote is key:

The business of selling open source software, remember, is dwarfed by the business of using open source software to produce and sell other services. And yet historically, most of the focus on open source software has accrued to those who sold it. Today, attention and traction is shifting to those who are not in the business of selling software, but rather share their assets via a variety of open source mechanisms.

If we look back to Eric Raymond’s seminal essay The Cathedral and The Bazaar, the model behind open source is clear; an open community gathered around a free software commons, with each participant “scratching their own itch”. But it’s clear we’ve forgotten this, to the point of delusional false conclusions based on partial insight. The enduring popularity of the false question “if you give it away free, how do you make money” shows that the echoes of the Cathedral model ring on long after we’ve realised that the Bazaar model is the one that works in the meshed era of the Internet.

Why is that? O’Grady seems to imply there’s novelty here:

The difference this time around is that by sharing the code developed internally as open source, it becomes possible to amortize the development costs across multiple organizations with similar needs.

But I believe that is a rediscovery, not an innovation. The anomaly is not that projects like Hadoop or OpenStack lack a company “monetising” them – it’s that we believe open source projects ought to have such a company. The past decade has been something of an “open source bubble”, with many people believing there is a fortune to be made if only they can find the right business model to pack around open source.

But that thinking has usually involved a compromise of one of the key qualities that make open source work. Usually it’s a desire for control or exclusivity in some form, but the outcome is always to progressively negate the “open source effect” in search of profit, by limiting the ability of every participant to get what they want and thus give what they can. While there’s clearly a niche for one or two expertly-balanced businesses, the propensity of commentators to focus on these colourful exceptions has created the perception this is the norm.

That anomalous decade is just about over. The new projects on the block are once again collaborative, seeded by companies whose business does not depend on selling the software or its direct derivatives. They involve synchronizing fragments of the interests of many, diverse participants rather than having the whole of a single party’s interests at their core. Every participant comes to them paying their own way rather than expecting the project to pay them.

They aren’t really new, either. They are a continuation of the quiet, enormous success of the Apache community and the GNOME community and their peers. This, not the commercial bubble, is the true open source way.

[First published in ComputerWorldUK]

✭ Jailbreaking Decision Is Temporary Relief

While the decision by the US Library of Congress to create exceptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act for unlocking cellphones and jailbreaking iPhones (among other things) in the USA are very welcome, the reaction has been just a touch too euphoric. Not by everyone, mind you. Dan Gilmore begins to explain why this isn’t a solution, and Wendy Seltzer nudges close to the problem as well. But plenty of people think they’ve been granted more than they really have.


What’s happened? Well, the DMCA makes it an offence in the USA to circumvent technical copyright protections created by the manufacturer. The law was aimed at protecting digital restriction measures (DRM, other people may expand the term differently!) but through poor drafting also provided a welcome legal weapon for ink cartridge manufacturers, cellphone makers and a variety of other classes of technical business to lock their competitors out of the market.

Notably, it was probably an offence to unlock a cellphone or jailbreak an iPhone in the USA under the DMCA. In US law, the Library of Congress are able to define copyright uses that are exempted from DMCA cover, and after pressure from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) they have applied a three-year exception for several common acts including these and making DVD backups.

There are two big reasons I’m only vaguely impressed, and neither of them are down to the fact that I live in a different jurisdiction where the trend is opposite. One concerns market power and its potential abuse, the other concerns global trade. Both lead to a toxicity which is harmful to digital liberty in general.

Market Power

First, market power. This action only removes one weapon (admittedly a nasty one) from the arsenal that is available to Apple and other behemoth corporations to control the market in which they operate. Unlike printer manufacturers, they can no longer file suit against you under the DMCA when you want to operate outside the patterns they have deemed acceptable for their customers and partners. They should probably never have been able to – copyright already has plenty of exceptions concerning fair use and reverse engineering that should have been respected when the DMCA was created. But Apple won’t have a problem enforcing their will without it. The contractual terms they are able to impose on both their partners and their customers do the trick perfectly well.

Yes, participation is optional, but to avoid getting burned you have to stay out of their kitchen completely. As a customer it’s too late to discover your device is incompatible with something you want to do after you’ve invested in it for a few months, and as a partner it’s too late to discover your business is too close to something Apple would rather control and own once you’ve submitted the app to the store. They can’t have you thrown in jail so easily any more, but they can just as easily prevent you participating and impose sanctions if you fight back.. They will no doubt continue to do so as capriciously as they have already.

Having just got a great Android phone, I’m less gloomy about this than I was; Android is a powerful Foundation to Apple’s Empire (as long as there’s no Mule – check Wikipedia if you’re behind on your Asimov).  It’s possible that the removal of the DMCA as a blunt instrument may be enough to balance the market forces and promote true competition, facilitated by open source.

Global Trade

Second, global trade. US legal norms for technology businesses for patents and copyrights may still be forming (for patents they are still “only” the result of case law), but that hasn’t stopped the US Trade Representative (USTR) and US trade missions globally from treating them as if they were handed down on stone tablets. They have been using conformance with “US norms” as a trading card in their rough games of political poker with various world governments. You know the sort of thing. “Nice export industry you have there for your agricultural produce. It would be a shame if anything happened to it. You can make sure it doesn’t if you legislate to prevent your citizens harming our noble media industries.” Kipling wrote about it eloquently, but people are still paying the USTR-geld.

Which is probably the intent of the copyright- and patent-dependent companies sponsoring the action anonymously through their trade associations. If they can get foreign governments to make hard rules where they can only persuade their own governments to make soft rules, the battle is all but won for them. They can use “international harmonisation” as the justification to get the draconian rules reinstated. That seems to be the reason ACTA has been given so much endorsement by the USA, as well as why they have been so keen on veiling its proceedings in secrecy. It’s not just USTR either – the equivalent functions in the European Commission seem to be working just as hard against their citizens’ interests.

Muted Applause

My positive reaction to the decision by the Library of Congress is thus more out of a sense of gratitude toward the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and their excellent and insightful team than any long-term relief. It was largely their work that produced this advance and it will likely be their work that holds back the process I’ve outlined. No wonder the media industry puppets hate this sort of organisation. But no-one should believe for a moment that this development makes it OK to jailbreak your iPhone. Doing that is asking for trouble. Its masters have merely been pushed back a layer in their defences, and temporarily at that.

[Also posted to my ComputerWorldUK blog and to Opensource.com]

✍ Open Core: Bad For Software Freedom

The open core model is being feted as the new default open source business model. But I assert it does not deliver and sustain the principle that delivers cost savings and flexibility to the customer – software freedom. As a consequence, businesses who live-or-die by open core risk the fate of Compiere ERP unless they can manage the incredibly delicate balance their customers will discover they demand. Mårten Mickos and Andrew Lampitt may disagree, but I assert that open core is bad for business. Read more on ComputerWorld UK.

☞ Open Data: Fantastic, But Not Enough

In an unusual move for such a significant news item, the UK government announced over the weekend that they were ordering all government departments to embark on a voyage of transparency. There were some very good ideas in the announcement, including a mandate to publish details of all ITC procurements. And there is no doubt that a mandate for open data is a fantastic move. The letter from the Prime Minister was pretty clear:

Given the importance of this agenda, the Deputy Prime Minister and I would be grateful if departments would take immediate action to meet this timetable for data transparency, and to ensure that any data published is made available in an open format so that it can be re-used by third parties. From July 2010, government departments and agencies should ensure that any information published includes the underlying data in an open standardised format.

Read on over on my ComputerWorldUK Blog

☞ Problems With WebM?

The announcement last week at Google IO of the creation of the WebM project and the release of the VP8 codec was a positive and welcome development, finally offering an alternative to the royalty-liable H.264 and to Theora. WebM arises from Google’s purchase of ON2 last year and had been widely anticipated. Google did their homework, securing endorsements from competing browser vendors Opera and Mozilla and even from Adobe (possibly in exchange for Google’s endorsement of Flash on their TV platform) and, weakly, from Microsoft. The parade is now in full swing, and we can expect many more announcements of support like the one from the Miro Project. Only Apple was painfully absent, pushing the Google-Apple tension further into the spotlight.

There was still more homework to do, though. Once all the hoopla had died down, it became clear there are some serious questions that need considering. Read about them on my ComputerWorldUK blog.

☞ Not Just For Radicals

Software freedom may sound like a line from a revolutionary manifesto, but it’s the key genetic marker for value in the enterprise. read more on my ComputerWorldUK blog

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