Electronic Design

The Conflict That Is Open Source: Is It A Philosophy Or A Dogma?

For many of its original proponents, the term Open Source is a philosophy that's being diluted as it is commercialized. By definition, in order for Open Source to survive, it must be popularized. This process often leads to change that the original cast feels uncomfortable with, as is happening today. A potential risk of this conflict between the original crusaders and the masses is that it will destroy what has been a revolutionary and positive shift in computing.

As stated by the German 17th century poet Goethe, "He who cannot draw on 3000 years lives from hand to mouth." We have a relatively short history upon which to base our analysis of computing trends and phenomena, yet this brief history is frequently ignored. Let's see what lessons we can learn from history.

Philosophical arguments from over the centuries can be characterized by one of two broad groups, the rationalists or empiricists. Rationalists, starting with Parmenides and continuing through Plato and Descartes, believed in underlying immutable truths or ideas that don't vary. Many Open Source enthusiasts hold that it's atomic and, therefore, it can't be changed and still remain Open Source.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, a group of British philosophers, most notably Locke, Hume, and Berkeley, adopted an empirical view and argued that perception is reality. With the commercialization of Open Source products, we see new groups, particularly companies, adopting an empirical or pragmatic approach. They use so-called Open Source licenses that the rationalists would claim aren't truly "Open."

Assuming that you were a rationalist, which Open Source license would you choose that exhibits the characteristics of an atomic immutable idea? Perhaps not the GPL. It has always niggled me that a license which purports to use simple language must first define what "free" means. My choice would be the FreeBSD license. It has an elegance and simplicity that's very appealing, with the practical exception of the need to list all previous contributors.

On the other hand, as an empiricist, what sort of license would you choose? The trend among many companies is to mix orthodox Open Source licensing with more traditional forms, amply illustrated by many Embedded Linux companies that sell their products under very traditional per-piece licenses. These companies make a part of their code available as Open Source but retain enough IP to ensure a credible business model. Others adopt Open Source licenses restricted to a particular community—yet another way of securing IP.

The differences between the original and newer Open Source licenses seem insurmountable. Who's right? And, does it matter? A similar conflict occurred 2500 years ago between Greek philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus. Parmenides claimed that nothing can change and that our perceptions are unreliable. Heraclitus said that his perceptions were reliable and that everything changes. Another Greek philosopher, Empedocles, arrived at a solution. He found that they disagreed because they both assumed the presence of a single element.

The Open Source conflict is the same. When you consider Open Source as a single element, the conflict exists. If you break Open Source down into those components that are fundamental and important to all groups, the conflict can be overcome. As it is relevant to developers, companies, and investors alike, Open Source's important elements are: source code visibility; the right to add, modify, and distribute; and the right to keep modifications private. I deliberately omitted cost from the list. When evaluating a software license, it isn't a question of Open Source or not, but rather, "Does it work for you?" I consider the above criteria important.

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