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Panel discusses openness at OSCON

By Nathan Willis on July 22, 2008 (9:00:00 PM)

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The first two days of O'Reilly's Open Source Convention (OSCON) are dominated by technical tutorials, but there are sessions that buck the trend. Monday's most interesting event was Participate 08, a panel discussion sponsored by Microsoft. Panelists debated the meaning of the buzzword "openness" as it applies to source code, services, data, and business models.

Moderater Karim Lakhani from Harvard Business School was joined by Jon Wilbanks of Creative Commons' Science Commons project, Allison Randall of O'Reilly, Bryan Kirschner of Microsoft's Open Source Software Lab, Siobhan O'Mahony from the University of California at Davis, and Zack Urlocker of MySQL and Sun. Over the course of three hours, the six tackled tricky subjects and fielded audience questions, all centered on how and why open source works -- when it does -- and where it does not.

Given the panel's diversity, disagreements were to be expected, so it was surprising how much consensus there was. A big part of that stemmed from clarifying the questions -- why "open source" works, for example, consists of understanding what motivates individual developers contributing to open source projects, what factors make open source communities thrive, how commercial entities interact with the volunteer developer community, and how companies with open source products relate to the overlapping developer, user, and customer communities.

Surprised by source

During the introductions, Lakhani asked the panel to say what surprised them most about open source, adding that he was surprised to learn than Microsoft has an open source office. Wilbanks explained that his experience with the Science Commons (which attempts to build open resources for scholarly articles, databases, and research tools, much like Creative Commons does for artistic works) brings regular surprises: areas where he thinks open source philosophy is a natural fit, such as education, don't take off, while it flourishes in the arenas he least expects.

Randall and Kirschner both said that they were surprised at the coherence of the open source movement as a whole, considering that it builds on the actions of so many individuals. O'Mahony echoed the same sentiment, adding that she was surprised at how well the open source movement has scaled as it grew.

Urlocker fired a volley in Microsoft's direction by saying he was surprised at how slow Redmond was to respond to the growth of open source. Thanks to that lack of attention, it is losing an entire generation of programmers who are teaching themselves open source tools and then using them when they enter the marketplace. "When you look at the startups today, they are building their business on Linux, Apache, PHP, MySQL -- not Microsoft products."

Microsoft's Kirschner agreed, adding that it took the company a while to realize the impact that the movement had on developers. In a moment of humor, he added that Steve Ballmer's now famous "Developers, developers, developers!" explosion was spot-on. The company grew to understand how the open source model differed from its longstanding "Shared Source" program, thanks in large part to engineers within the company pushing for the release of individuals tools that were desirable to programmers, but not feasible as products.

What's my motivation?

The panel discussed a range of issues, including the merits and success rate of the "hybrid" open source business model, how open source culture includes or excludes participation, how communities change as they scale up, the differing and sometimes conflicting definitions of open, and the still-nascent "open data" movement, which shares ideals with the open source movement but is less cohesive in its definitions and less developed legally.

The biggest sparks flew over the question of motivation -- why individual developers choose to participate in open source. Several of the panelists mentioned pragmatic motivations such as self-education, career development, and desire to be associated with what is perceived as a successful and ethical movement. Since those motives apply to corporate participation, this line of discussion prompted audience member Bradley Kuhn of the Software Freedom Law Center to ask the panel whether the session was a cheerleading session for commercial open source.

The panel was surprised by Kuhn's assessment. Randall insisted that there were many motivators for open source development, including the altruistic desire to help and grow the community. Lakhani argued that tension between different motivations had always been part of the open source movement, and that the tension was good, allowing more points of view and keeping them in balance.

Legal elephants in the room

Interestingly enough, the topic Lakhani predicted would elicit the most debate -- intellectual property -- provided well-balanced, reasoned discussion.

All panelists agreed that IP was important in open source software. As Randall pointed out, if the framework of software licensing created to serve the proprietary software industry did not exist, then the GPL would not exist either. O'Mahony added that many nonprofit entities use IP law to accumulate, integrate, and protect information that is vital for future development.

Urlocker described MySQL's frustration with software patents, including waffling on behalf of hybrid proprietary/open source companies, and fear on the part of pure open source organizations that lacked the resources to wage a legal fight over software patents.

Wilbanks lamented use of the blanket term "intellectual property" to conflate copyright, patent, trademark, and trade secret law -- concepts that have little to do with one another. Copyright law is incredibly powerful, written to serve publishers, and hinges on one fundamental: the right to sue someone else. Under these circumstances, he said, "we're boned." In the future, he hoped, open source can make better use of trademark concepts like branding -- where the fundamental issue is the right to associate your work with something valuable. When the desire to claim association with a brand like "open source" is of bigger concern than the desire to sue, the conditions will be right for open source to thrive.

Several conference attendees I spoke to one-on-one said that the best thing about OSCON is that it brings together open source players from every corner of the community: Perl hackers, Python developers, operating system gurus, networking experts, mobile device designers. The same could be said of Participate 08 -- the panel brought academics, businesspeople, and nonprofit activists into one room, and the discussion was worthwhile from start to finish. Microsoft's name may have been on the whiteboard, but it in no way drove the debate.

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