Open Source: More than a License

by Ostatic Staff - Nov. 05, 2009

Has the terminology finally evolved in the debate over "who's open source?" It would seem so. After years of haggling over the essence of open source, free software or other monikers, Simon Phipps gets right to the point in "A Remarkable Reversal" - his critique of Richard Stallman's joint letter to the EC regarding Oracle and MySQL.

For the first time, there seems to be a growing concensus that an OSI-compliant license alone is not enough to define one's position on the openness spectrum. As Phipps notes:

 "Dual licensing is everywhere in commercial open source. So the letter from Stallman is a surprise because it's the first time I have really seen him acknowledge that the license alone can be no guarantee of software freedom. It takes more - including community governance, trademark and copyright ownership and administration, the percentage of core function in the commons - as partial indicators of software freedom. They need to be taken together to get the full view."

 The remarkable thing about the Oracle - MySQL case is that it forces us to put up or shut up in a realistic, fact-based way not clad in ideological robes. Whatever your opinions, you now have a test case against which to apply them. In the past, I decried the software freedom debate as much ado about nothing - the 21st century equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But now we see it in real-world terms where something tangible is at stake. This is no longer a case of visionary hippies vs. business pragmatists engaging in religious combat with no consequences or outcomes. This is now a battle with winners and losers, and in the case of dual-licensed projects, the communities of said projects could very well end up the losers. 

This episode has opened up the debate in a way I haven't seen since the OSI was established over 10 years ago. I once said that "open source is boring" because there was nothing to add to the debate. I'm happy to say that I was quite wrong, and that I will enjoy seeing how it all shakes out. If we want to ensure that communities win or at the very least avoid losing in our brave, new world of open source M & A, then we will need to be vigilant in defining the terms.

Previously, an open source approach could be defined in the same way a senator once defined pornography: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." This led to much sturm and drang over whether company X was really open source. By defining the terms more clearly and recognizing that the choice of software license only goes so far, we can hopefully create a stronger ecosystem for all parties involved. We do not yet know the outcome of the Oracle - MySQL affair, but by forcing us to address this shortcoming, it has been A Good Thing(tm). For now it's safe to say that open source is more than just a license, it's a state of mind.