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A Look Back at 10 Years of OSI

by Federico Biancuzzi

The end of the '90s was a great epoch for the software world. We lived a revolution without being aware...

The spirit of open source and the importance of free software spread worldwide, and ten years later we take as habit things that were completely unthinkable ten years ago.

Sun buying MySQL? Microsoft releasing open source software? $200 Linux PCs at WalMart? Governments that switch to Open Source systems? PDAs, phones, and consoles running free software?

If you want to learn more about those years, you should read the open book Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution.

During February 1998, Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens founded OSI, the Open Source Initiative, with the goal of promoting Open Source culture, especially in the business world.

After 10 years of activity, the foundation has reached many unbelieveable goals, and it has a great future ahead.

To celebrate the moment, Federico Biancuzzi interviewed the two founders, Bruce Perens and Eric Raymond, Brian Behlendorf (a member of the first Board of Directors, the others were Ian Murdock, Russ Nelson, and Chip Salzenberg), and Michael Tiemann, the current President.

Let's start with Perens' interview...

Federico Biancuzzi: What dreams and goals (about open source) did you have when you co-founded OSI?

Bruce Perens: Dreams? What happened was far greater than I dared to dream. Open Source is a key part of enterprise computing, and government computing, and it's in very many people's homes, mostly playing roles they don't notice. It's taken over the biggest computer firms in the world. I talk with a lot of companies, because I make a living helping them make corporate policies and processes for working with Open Source. We find that there are two kinds of companies: those whose executives know they're using Open Source, and those who are using it, but their front office hasn't come to terms with the fact yet. You don't have to sell anyone on Open Source any longer, they already have it.

One of my projects today is working on Open Source and Open Standards for the AMSAT satellites, primarily an upcoming geostationary satellite. What could be more fun than having your work go in space? Talk about deams, I'm living them!

Biancuzzi: Why did you leave OSI?

Perens: You are the first person to ask that question in at least five years. Rather than cry over spilled milk, let's be constructive: it would be good for OSI for me to be on its board now. It doesn't seem to be hurting me that I'm not on it, though. I get the same opportunities to promote Open Source whether or not I'm on OSI's board: meeting with national government leaders and top CEOs, addressing the UN, etc.

Biancuzzi: What is your point of view on OSI activity since you left?

Perens: I'm concerned that they hold the line, rather than allow the meaning of Open Source to be diluted any further than they already have allowed. The most dangerous area they've tread recently is the difference between fair attribution of the software creator and "badgeware." Socialtext's license was as mild as possible and there was precedent for it in the attribution requirements of the GPL, etc., but it potentially creates a slippery slope to much worse restrictions in licenses that would effectively handicap the Open Source software under those licenses for commercial use, necessary forks, etc. That would hurt all of us.

I'm especially opposed to licenses that place any legal burden on a mere user, rather than someone who modifies or redistributes. One of the goals for Open Source was that users should be able to just use it, without reading the license or having to hire a lawyer. To some extent, software patents break that for us, for some businesses, but that's not our doing. We shouldn't create additional hurdles to simple users if we can avoid it.

And I regret that Open Source has sometimes been used to deprecate Richard Stallman and his promotion of Free Software. I have always maintained that Open Source and Free Software are two ways of talking about the same thing, to different kinds of people. Obviously Open Source arguments are tailored to business people, while other folks, for example programmers, have been more receptive to Richard's arguments about the importance of Freedom a priori. Many people have started to apprehend the arguments of Open Source first, and have been led to an appreciation of their Freedom and Stallman's philosophy once they understand why Open Source makes business sense.

Biancuzzi: Is the distinction between "free software" and "open source" still meaningful?

Perens: It was always a mistake. Open Source and Free Software are two different ways of talking about the same thing. One is written to appeal to programmers, the other to business people. Once they are into Open Source, the business people start to appreciate Stallman's ideas.

However, Richard feels differently about this issue.

Biancuzzi: Do you still see the same excitement towards open source present as the end of the '90s? Or it went away with the bubble? Or maybe it evolved in something different (business, for example)?

Perens: There's tons of excitement and it's nice that people who want to write Free Software can get jobs doing that. What is reduced today is the perception of an ethical and public-benefit side to writing Open Source: we're sharing our work with the public, that is a good thing which should be recognized. Too much of the focus today is on the folks whose main interest in Open Source is to cash in. That's wrong from both a social and an economic perspective. Most developers of Open Source work for companies whose main interest is to use it, rather than to make money off of it. They're happy to share, because they never expected to make money on their enabling, infrastructure software. They just want to make better software, and more of it, with less expense. My paper The Emerging Economic Paradigm of Open Source goes into that.

Biancuzzi: Has the funding process evolved since 1998?

Perens: The problem with making your money from support is that early adopters are self-supporting. So, selling support didn't work for a whole bunch of early Linux companies. It works better today for Red Hat and MySQL, for example. But there are many other ways to make money. Most folks just use Open Source as a tool, they pay for their share of its development with their IT budgets, and they make money in some way that isn't connected with sales of software at all. Dual-licensing is a popular way to make money from users who aren't willing to accept a Free Software license like the GPL for their own work.

Biancuzzi: What differences do you see between late '90s and today in the way corporations interact with Open Source projects/developers?

Perens: Gosh, it used to be hell convincing some corporate folks that they had to listen to the Open Source developers at all. I remember one day explaining to a marketing person from Corel (remember Corel Linux) how she needed to track the developer community and how they feel about Corel, and she looked at me as if I was suggesting something really gross. Her, tarry with programmers? Well, I'm glad that time is over. Companies recognize the value of their communities.

Biancuzzi: Do you see any difference in the way Open Source evolved in U.S.A. and in the rest of the world?

Perens: I think it has been easier to be listened to in Europe, where they have parliamentary governments that represent a broader set of interests. We got the ears of the Green Party in many nations before the others. Now that we've gone so mainstream, people from all parties listen.

Now some Q&A with Eric Raymond. He is the author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar...

Federico Biancuzzi: Is the distinction between "free software" and "open source" still meaningful?

Eric Raymond: That depends on what your goal is. If you're primarily interested in moralizing and conducting ideological warfare, then there is a theoretical distinction that matters a lot. If you're primarily interested in either producing superior software or describing the collaborative behavior of people who produce better software, then the distinction is practically meaningless.

I'd say "completely meaningless," except that there are two rarely-used licenses (the NASA Open Source Agreement and the Reciprocal Public License) that OSI certifies "open source" and FSF says are non-free. I think this difference is due only to minor drafting errors and technical differences in interpretation. Recently RMS and I agreed in principle that OSI and FSF should jointly approach the NASA-OSA license owners to fix that problem.

Biancuzzi: What is your point of view on licenses proliferation?

Raymond: A lot of my recent work with OSI has been around attempts to slow down -- even end, if possible -- the flood of new licenses. I think it was necessary for the business world to experiment and explore the license design space, but I also think that period of exploration is largely over now. In fact, I expect the number of licenses in use to contract sharply during the next few years.

Biancuzzi: What is your opinion of the Creative Commons project and its licenses?

Raymond: A noble effort. I think there's a serious flaw in some of their licenses, though, in that they rely on being able to make a bright-line distinction between "commercial activity" and "non-commercial activity." In fact, at least under U.S. and British law, there's no reliable way to do that; you run into edge cases like fundraising activity by non-profit organizations. That's why the OSD doesn't depend on making any such distinction -- it's too easy to end up with either exploitable loopholes for non-cooperating commercial entities or nasty legal risks for nonprofits.

Biancuzzi: I read different explanations about the link between GPL and LKM for Linux. Do you think that LKMs for Linux should be automatically covered by the GPLv2-only used by the kernel itself?

Raymond: I'm outside that debate. First, I think it's Linus's policy decision to make. Secondly, I don't care to get involved in theological disputes about GPL variants or its scope because I no longer think we need "reciprocal" or "infectious" licenses at all.

The GPL made sense for a community that was small, frightened, and believed that economic incentives would push corporations into taking code without giving back improvements. Well -- today the community is large and it frightens corporations. Most importantly, we've learned that defection is its own punishment, because the day you defect you lose most of your developers and your cost structure goes way up. Eventually, your competitors who didn't defect eat your lunch.

So, why GPL? The answer I think is that it's mostly a historical habit. And a lot of hackers like to see themselves as persecuted rebels, so clinging to GPL is psychologically rewarding and they don't really want to notice that it's no longer necessary.

Biancuzzi: What about GPL3 then?

Raymond: It's another reciprocal license. Better written in some ways than GPL2; I had a long email conversation with Linus in which I tried to persude him to adopt it, my goal being to reduce the amount of political crap flying around in the community. But functionally I don't think we need this class of license any more.

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