Perens: 'Badgeware' threat to open source's next decade
Je ne regrette rien - kinda
10th birthday interview Bruce Perens doesn't regret the fact that, since officially co-birthing open source with The Cathedral and the Bazaar author and hacker Eric Raymond ten years ago, Linux and open source have moved from the sandal-wearing fringes to acceptance by Wall Street and big, closed-source industry giants.
Nor does he feel remorse at the fact that Linux and open source established a pervasive presence on servers and handhelds such as Motorola's RAZR, and that they are now proving popular in browsers, languages and developer frameworks.
In fact, Perens is so convinced that open source culture - such as collaborative working in a community - has proven so adept at creating high quality products like Firefox for lower costs and reduced risk to individuals, he believes the open source philosophy will spill over into non-IT areas like education materials and manufacture of business and consumer goods in the next ten years.
No. If Bruce Perens could change anything from that day in February 1998 when he announced the Open Source Definition and the Open Source Initiative he'd alter the very way open source licenses are ratified, to halt what he regards as the chief threat to the next ten years of open source: license proliferation.
Perens said the growth in licenses, especially the emergence of "badgeware", or attribution licenses used by numerous open source companies, such as last year's Common Public Attribution License (CPAL), is dangerous. Today, we have 68 licenses ranging from the well-known GNU General Public License(GPL) to the, well... the OCLC Research Public License 2.0 recognized by the OSI.
Badgeware puts open source on a slippery slope to the approval of ever-more restrictive licenses. The OSI - the body that ratifies all open source and Linux licenses - has failed to establish a clear guideline for approving badgeware, and apparently acted arbitrarily, leaving left us potentially open to even more badgeware. "It was not clear to me that by granting this license [Socialtext] that the OSI can hold the line. They have to come up with a rationale," Perens told Reg Dev in an interview.
While Perens supports recognition of developers' work, he believes badgeware licenses threaten the very essence of open source and Linux - their creativity - because such licenses put arbitrary terms and conditions on developers. Badgeware makes the software's use ever more restrictive and leaves individual developers open to attack from America's biggest single export: litigious attorneys.
"I wasn't prepared for [license proliferation]- I might have structured it differently had I known," Perens conceded. "I'd have suggested putting a non-proliferation clause in the Open Source Initiative and designed the licence approval process, so it was a bad idea to submit a licence that does the same as another licence."
Perens believes he can't now insert such a clause and - in lieu of that fact - believes the best hope for the next ten years is for open source and Linux projects and technologies to be licensed under GPL3 or LGPL3, successors to GPL2 and LGPL2. "Because of the legal scrutiny those licenses have had," said.
GPL3 and LGPL3 ensure the author's identity while also providing developers the best line of legal defense. Perens, who has been involved in a number of GPL law suits, said GPL reserves the author's rights so attorneys get noting, and give up fighting. "There was never a question of weakness in these cases... there's this 100 per cent record - everyone settles. Why? Because they [attorneys] can't gain anything."
As such, Perens believes Linux creator Linus Torvalds is mistaken to resist putting Linux under GPL3, keeping it under GPL2. "I think Linus has been a really been a loose cannon on that. I think the kernel would be stronger under GPL3 and there's no reason not to do it."
Licensing aside, Perens believes the Open Source Definition has stood well during its first ten years. Linux and open source have given users freedom from vendor lock-in, which put the fiscal interests of vendors ahead of those of the end user. He served as Hewlett Packard's senior global strategist for Linux and open source, and was charged with revisiting that company's Linux strategy against Sun. He reckoned that HP's Unix-based HP 9000 notched up 70 per cent margins simply because HP 9000 users had no choice other than to pay whatever price HP wanted to set.
Linux and open source have also freed the IT industry from being beholden to a single vendor, Microsoft, which hurt businesses. Back to HP, he cites that company's misplaced decision to shift from Unix and place its server bets on Microsoft's then-nascent Windows NT (since Windows 2000 Server), which failed to materialize as promised. "They [Microsoft] took years longer to deliver a reliable [version of] NT and during that time, because HP had stepped out the Unix spotlight, Sun [Microsystems] ate their lunch," Perens said.
Such has been the force of Linux and open source, that big vendors such as IBM, Oracle and Sun have come to realize its potential for reducing their product development costs and exposure to risk, because they can rely on a broader level of input on code development and support. Also, according to Perens, it's become impossible to deny how good open source and Linux is. In a testament to the strength of companies selling open source services, big systems and closed-source vendors are now buying up open source specialists; to name just five, Sun is buying MySQL and Nokia Trolltech, while Oracle bought Sleepycat, Novell SuSE and IBM Gluecode.
While some might worry about what the trend for ownership of open source companies by commercial or closed-source vendors means, Perens is confident the open source products and communities themselves will thrive. For example, Nokia could take Trolltech closed source, but then it would become just another portable GUI platform. "The big deal about Trolltech today is there are so many programmers who know how to program because they use open source software," Perens said. "I think their longevity comes from their open sourceness."
One landmark in the last ten years was Sun finally open-sourcing Java. Perens welcomed that, saying it made use of Java with open source more comfortable, but noted open source Java was five-years too late and the open source community is now providing alternative languages, frameworks and tools that are Java compatible but - importantly - lightweight, making them easier to use than Java.
"So we've got Java mobile and all sorts of little places for Java developers," Perens said. "I think sticking all those in one framework means the framework is going to be a bachelor all trades and a master of none."
Then there's Microsoft. In the last ten years Microsoft has gone from ignoring to attacking Linux and open source, and now seems to be making friendly noises, having even submitted its licenses to the OSI. Microsoft has come a long way from describing open source software as a cancer. Or has it? According to Perens, Microsoft is still playing hard and playing to win, only shifting its tactics.
He believes Microsoft has a hidden agenda of being able to speak to governments as a member of the open source community rather than an outsider, to promote its cause for Windows or patent protection in software.
The controversial partnerships with Novell, Linspire and Xandros are part of getting communities to stand next to Microsoft when it goes to government and say "we need software patenting". "Novell has entered this agreement with the clear knowledge it will do open source harm," Perens said. The attempt to push through Office Open XML (OOXML) specification in Office, meanwhile, has actually damaged the credibility of organizations like the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
Taking stock, Perens believes the first ten years saw open source and Linux take flack for "copying" products or "stealing" code. This was epitomized by the SCO case. Not only is that behind us, but Perens believes open source and Linux have changed the industry - making it uneconomical to deliver certain products, such as new operating systems - while raising their own game.
"Open source started out as a rather derivative thing, because we handmade Unix. We were still making our Windowing systems. We were catching up, and we were accused of copying other folks. That period is now about five years over. What we have seen is open source is the absolute leader in a number of fields." ®