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How Open Is "Open"? – Industry Luminaries Join the Debate

Need an "open source" company nowadays merely be "a company that will help you make the switch to open source in your company"?

Nat Torkington raised this week the very real question of whether the term "open source" is now completely meaningless, in the sense that its meaning has now been sucked out of it by companies that purport to be open source yet don't allow users to freely download, compile, and use the software in question. One example Torkington cites is SugarCRM, whose license he describes as "a questionably modified OSI-approved license.

But Sam Minee of SilverStripe didn't agree with Torkington, and argued that, in order to describe itself as an "open source" company, all it need to be is "a company that will help you make the switch to open source in your company."

So where is the dividing line? How "open" is open? And is "open source" as a term dead or dying?

Enterprise Open Source Magazine contacted a wide range of FOSS luminaries for their "take." Here is what they had to say:


"I'd support the reunification of the terms 'Free' and 'open source' "

"I see open source as a term relevant to the way communities function and I'd support the reunification of the terms 'Free' and 'open source' around the concept of Free software being developed in open source communities. On that basis it's not dead."

Simon Phipps – Chief Open Source Officer, Sun Microsystems



"The OSI has done a great job protecting the definition of Open Source"

"Open Source is freely downloadable, usable, and redistributable by its community of users and contributors. While trademarks and certification value add should be and is protected, Open Source has no oddball gated community, look-but-don't-touch, private source, or badgeware restrictions. There are no Open Source, on-ramp "childrens' editions" to closed source products offered by a true open source company.

People and companies should get credit for their contributions and work in an open manner in the community, but not with restrictions on the openness of the code. To date, the OSI has done a great job protecting the definition of Open Source. Let's hope they continue that tradition."

Pierre Fricke – Director, Product Line Management, SOA Products, Red Hat


"The defining characteristics of 'open'..."


"The defining characteristics of 'open' are:
- a genuine, recognized open source license. The Apache License, which Spring uses, is very liberal and does not lock out any commercial use
- visible repositories: free information about what is developed and by whom
- open issue tracker: free information about bugs and resolution. Ability for anyone to file issue reports
- a real community, perhaps funded by one or more companies but with wide participation
- the ability for anyone to gain committer status through merit and dedication"

Rod Johnson – CEO and founder, Interface21


"There are levels of openness..."

"The OSI's Open Source Definition, first drafted by Bruce Perens for Debian in June 1997, is the most obvious place to turn to when attempting to apply an 'open source litmus test.' However, using the OSI's criteria, a number of efforts we generally consider 'open source' would fail this test.

There are levels of openness and I don't believe a strict interpretation is going to be practical. It's up to each person to determine what 'open source', or more broadly, 'open' means within its specific context. The challenge right now is that it's hip to be 'open', even if you're not. Are there some 'posers'? It all depends on your 'open' threshold."

Analyst Raven Zachary from The 451 Group


"Understanding Open Source is an evolutionary process"

"Throughout the time I've been involved with Open Source, I have been fascinated by the recurring pattern of companies wishing to align themselves with Open Source principals while they simultaneously maintain their essentially proprietary business instincts and models.

At OSI we have seen that the process of growth in Open Source is more evolutionary than revolutionary. We invite public debate with each successive wave of newcomers to start the process to close the gap between what they imagine Open Source to be and the reality of what is required (and why)."

Danese Cooper – Board Member of the Open Source Initiative


"The concept of open source is far from dying"


"The whole point of open source licensing is that no one company can do anything to threaten the freeness and openness of the software. The open in 'open source' derives its meaning from the idea, embodied by the GNU General Public License, that the freedom to receive, distribute, alter, and copy software is guaranteed. As long as people understand that software licensed with such mandates constitute open source, and that all other licenses don't, there is no concern about the meaning of 'open' shifting.

The concept of open source is far from dying. The software which has been released as open source (or free software as some prefer) must be distributed with the very licenses which make them free. Until the world has no use for Linux, Drupal, PostgreSQL or the Apache server, open source is alive and well."

Robert Douglass – the Drupal Association

"Nat Torkington is right "

"I very much welcome any company that will 'help make the switch to open source,' and I wouldn't want to rule any one of them out by stating that they are incorrect in using to the term in their marketing campaigns. But Nat Torkington is right that the term 'open source' is becoming more and more meaningless as it is no longer just a plain and simple definition of how a piece of software is developed and maintained.

For this reason, there has been the suggestion within the Apache Software Foundation to use the more specific term 'open development.' By referring to 'open development', a company (or rather, community) very clearly states that it is developing and releasing its software in a very specific way that allows anyone to download, build and run the code. And that is exactly what the more abstract wording of 'open source' is currently unable to do."

Arjé Cahn – CTO, Hippo


"I would like to see more consolidation of licenses"

"Open source isn’t black and white. Individuals choose to consume open source for different reasons. Companies and individuals decide to invest their time and money in open source development for different reasons. The proliferation of new open source licenses does cause unnecessary confusion and complexity for both individual consumers and vendors building solutions.

I would like to see more consolidation of licenses to make it easier for users to understand. We selected OSI-approved licenses for our open source initiatives to make it easier for users to adopt and modify the software to meet their needs."

Debbbie Moynihan – Director of Open Source Programs for IONA Technologies


"The open source development model is a meritocracy"

"I think the question, How Open is Open? is perhaps the wrong question as it ultimately will answer itself. One of the advantages of the open source development model is that it’s a meritocracy. So by virtue of the quality of your software and the effectiveness of your open source strategy the ones that do things right will be successful. It doesn’t matter what you or I or other community leaders think it’s opinion of the end-user that matter.

To that end companies that cloud the open source issue up front with a pseudo open source strategy will fall by the wayside, and those that are true innovators will flourish. I believe this whole thread was sparked by a current trend of “open source crippleware” where ISVs put out a minimalist version and then hold back the useful additions to create a business that coerces users to a paid subscription. In the short term it has worked for a number of open source vendors in the long-term I think these strategies might be less successful.

In my own experience I have been intimately involved with two open source projects heavily over the last year with both types of licenses. The first open source project I was involved with significantly was NetDirector, which is released under the MPL with an attribution clause, and the second is Zenoss, which is licensed under the GPL. The one that has been more successful in terms of adoption is GPL-licensed Zenoss: that's shaped my thinking and my recommendation to others."

Mark R. Hinkle – VP of Community and Business Development, Zenoss Inc. and Editor-in-Chief, Enterprise Open Source Magazine



"Open Source is defined by the OSI and the Open Source Definition"

"Open Source is Open Source, and it was defined by the OSI for a reason - to prevent brand dilution of the term Open Source. Hyperic for example releases its Open Source software under the GPL, an OSI Certified license.

It's perfectly fine if companies do not wish to meet the Open Source Definition, as they are certainly free to define another term that better reflects their strategy. But it's better for the software industry on the whole if the taxonomy waters are not muddied more than they already are."

John Mark Walker – Community Manager, Hyperic


"Open source by itself does not describe today's spectrum of open source projects"

"Commercial open source product companies are continuing to edge away from the 'official' definition of open source, perhaps because it doesn't provide a way to prevent a new competitor from using the original source code as the basis for a new, competitive offering. In addition, while most of the commercial open source companies follow an open source distribution model, very few of them follow an open source development model that includes community contributions.

So I agree with Nat that the term 'open source' by itself does not describe today's spectrum of open source projects. I routinely distinguish 'commercial open source' from 'community-based open source,' where the former includes those companies trying to generate revenue from open source software and the latter are non-commercial, including 'free/libre' software."

Tony Wasserman – Executive Director, Center for Open Source Investigation, Carnegie Mellon West



"Companies that do not provide 'Open Source' software should not be called Open Source companies"

"Even though I more often use the term Free Software to emphasize the freedom aspects, I think that the term Open Source also has a strong meaning from a commercial point of view.

The Open Source definition defined by the OSI clearly defines if a license can be considered as Open Source 'compliant' or not. However, we must make sure that no company or individual defines a license as Open Source when it is not.

Companies that do not provide 'Open Source' software should not be called Open Source companies. If they are producing a mix of proprietary software and Open Source software, then I do not see a problem with it, even though they do not totally respect our Freedom."

Damien Sandras – Creator and developer of Ekiga's VoIP and videoconferencing software



"There is a grand experiment going on today..."

"It is worth dividing this discussion into two parts: Code and Companies

Code: Open Source is Open Source. That means source code is open and available for use and free redistribution. Taking it a step further, in today’s world, the definition of Open Source connotes code that is licensed under an OSI-approved license. To say otherwise is to confuse the issue. For purposes of the code, there are not degrees of open source-ness. Either the code is OSI-licensed or it isn’t.

Companies: There is a grand experiment going on today, in which a variety of business models around open source software are being tested. After all, companies are formed to make money, and require a business model to exist. Some companies offer support contracts for pure open source software. Others employ a dual-licensing strategy. And some close up some or all of their code bases.

Provided the companies follow the terms of the underlying licenses, all of these models are valid, and all of them are properly associated with open source. Indeed, these companies are typically major leaders/contributors to their underlying projects and have the full support of their communities. While their products may or may not be open source, they are, indeed, open source companies. As Allison Randal says in her follow-up post to Nat Torkington’s, “What else would you call a company that bases their entire business on offering support and enhancements for open source software?”

Andy Astor – CEO, EnterpriseDB

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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Most Recent Comments
Business Outsourcing 04/28/08 04:55:18 PM EDT

Great article. Now if we put business outsourcing and open source business together, we'd have a powerful company for obvious reasons.

Business Outsourcing Tips

Guitar Hero Cheats Underground 04/27/08 04:02:52 PM EDT

Good information. This is all new to me! Love to read and just learn from people who know what they're talking about...

SEO PPC Marketing Guru 08/14/07 05:49:42 AM EDT

this is a nice article about open source...I understand most of it, but you gotta admit it's a bit nerdy for the average guy! lol.

Free Credit Report Guy 06/20/07 02:16:00 PM EDT

Good to finally see the debate/opinions from some of the well-known figures in the field. I like the concept of meritocracy. I believe it will make software better.

MEI 05/16/07 05:07:52 AM EDT

Just curious...What is a luminary anyway? Sounds like such a fancy term to describe someone in the industry! =)

Andy 05/04/07 02:25:07 PM EDT

Just look at how China is starting to develop their own non-Microsoft open source operating system. I think this is the true essense of an open source organization at work...the government recognizing its power and potential and taking the lead by putting finances behind it for the non-monopolization of Windows...now THAT's open!

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aNon 03/03/07 04:27:56 PM EST

Open source means the code can be inspected by everybody and, hopefully, that you can compile that code. I'd put way more trust in such a system rather than in a closed source, binary only, one. Sure, there have been attempt to place backdoor in source code, but it's not anywhere the level of backdoors/spyware/nastyness that are all way too common in binary-only software (do we really need to start the enumeration?).

For this reason alone, even if I can't submit patches, I'd always choose a product whose code is open.

Dave 03/02/07 07:28:46 PM EST

Let's see, if a company creates an open source software, it is definitely considered an open source company. However, the same company would still be considered open source whether if it chooses to help clients "make the switch" to that software, or not. The choice is up to them.

Dave 03/02/07 07:10:49 PM EST

Let's see, if a company creates an open source software, it is definitely considered an open source company. However, the same company would still be considered open source whether if it chooses to help clients "make the switch" to that software, or not. The choice is up to them.

michael j pastor 03/01/07 02:34:58 PM EST

Open Source is not an either/or definition. It's a spectrum and entirely connotative. One could argue what 'open source' means ad infinitum, and then argue ad infinitum if one project conforms or not to the definition. It's kind of like saying "I'm in love" and then arguing with someone whether or not somebody else is based on your subjective definition.

Cox -> ESR 03/01/07 09:53:25 AM EST

Alan Cox wrote to ESR: Maybe it is time the term "open source" also did the decent thing and died out...

OSI Definition 02/28/07 05:58:06 AM EST

Here are Bruce Perens's guidelines, "Open Standards - Principles and Practice": http://perens.com/OpenStandards/Definition.html

Defining Terms 02/28/07 04:45:41 AM EST

According to the OSI, "open source" doesn't just mean access to the source code. The distribution terms of open-source software must comply with a given set of criteria.

Capitalists vs. Entrepreneurs 02/27/07 08:04:24 PM EST

Jed Harris has a fantastic post about how peer production introduces a fissure between capitalists and entrepreneurs. It's here: http://jed.jive.com/?p=23

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