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Is Red Hat doing its part to win the 'open source' war?

Confusion at Club Badgeware

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The OSI license debate, like so many things open source, conjures up both emotional and pragmatic elements.

Critics of the OSI have room to argue a couple of major points. They can claim that the organization has failed to provide a well-greased mechanism for license examination and approval, something some OSI members will cop to. In addition, they can push forward independently, claiming that the OSI is not their boss. Business moves at the speed of business not standards organizations.

And, lastly, you can make a case that there's something very outdated about the desire of open source bigots to hold on the so-called "community" nature behind their software. The fact of the matter is that non-proprietary software has become popular with big business. The peace and love era has ended.

Tiemann proves uninterested in such arguments.

"In the open source context, when Larry Ellison (Oracle's CEO who launched an attack against Red Hat) stood up during his keynote and said what he thought open source meant, he was really saying 'I can steal other people's code, sell it at half price and make a lot of money.'" Tiemann told us. "We better be a lot more careful about what open source means because the big guys are coming and subverting the definition as best as they can."

Tiemann says the OSI now has a proper communications platform in place, via a web site upgrade of all things, to help it counter open source abusers. And Tiemann thinks the time is right to make an issue of the license situation.

"Companies using the term open source without an OSI approved license are diluting the brand," Tiemann said. "They are using the term without a concrete reference point. I think this is a big deal.

"There has been so much integrity in terms of what open source has meant."

The Return to RHX

SugarCRM has become the whipping boy for Tiemann and the open source advocates in general. As a result, the software maker has issued an omerta, refusing to comment to the press.

Meanwhile, Red Hat has its own problems.

An FAQ page on the RHX web site makes the following statement: "The initial set of participating software partners all have an open source focus. We realize that there is debate about which companies are truly open source. To make it transparent to users, RHX lists license information for each software partner. Longer term, we may introduce proprietary applications that are friendly with open source applications."

In reality, those searching for clear license information on the RHX site will struggle to find it. Instead of providing the license upfront, Red Hat forces you to tunnel into FAQ minutiae for each application, and even then, you have to be lucky to discover the relevant information.

Some of the 13 companies in RHX stand out as huge OSI offenders, according to the "true" open source advocates. Software makers such as SugarCRM and Centric CRM are there. You'll also find the likes of MySQL, EnterpriseDB, Zmanda and Compiere using dual GPL and commercial licenses. Then, there are companies such as Zimbra that use the MPL for the majority of their software, relying on the attribution-friendly Zimbra Public License for their Ajax client.

"Zimbra is staunchly committed to open source ideals," said Scott Dietzen, President of Zimbra in a statement.

There's also Alfresco, which counts OSI director Matt Asay as a top executive and recently switched from the MPL to the GPL 2.

So, if you're looking for license consistency and clarity, RHX is not the best place to turn.

"The RHX material needs to be more clear about what part of this is open source and what part just works with open source," Tiemann said. "You don't want to shoot on sight, but you do want to put people on notice."

(Incidentally, the RHX staff appear to have removed the comment counter following our recent story. Transparency? We've heard of it.)

Red Hat bills itself as the open source software leader. As we see it, however, the company is struggling to be clear about these OSI licensing issues that the open source community considers critical. If Tiemann and others want to create a muscular division between the badgeware bastardizers and the open source faithful, we'll need to see a much more focused effort from the top.

Surely, RHX - the grand "open source" software collective - should stand as a model for the proper way to do business. Red Hat should take its position as a trend setter very seriously here, since so many of the open source fans we know consider this a do or die moment for holding on to the open source definition.®

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