Software Licensing: Ideology vs. Progress

Opinion: The software industry is evolving beyond FSF's dogmatism.

Programmers are problem solvers. What were about is solving a technical problem at 3 a.m. and later regaling folks with tales of how we did it. Ironically, we can also be prone to zealotry—about our programming language, our text editor and even the drink we use to stay up at night. Nowhere is this behavior more evident than in rhetoric about commercial and open-source licensing.

The debate over licensing models has been characterized by invective, including claims of immorality and cancerlike effects. This rhetoric has cemented the perception that the world of software is divided into two diametrically opposed camps: those who create commercial software and those who create open-source software. As with most things in life, the reality is not so black and white but comes in shades of gray.

In fact, it is becoming difficult to find any software company that fits solely into either the open-source or the commercial world. Hybrid companies, releasing their work under myriad licenses, now dominate the software industry.

Companies such as IBM, Sun, Novell, Red Hat and Oracle license some of their software, including patents, under open-source licenses, but they use commercial licenses to protect other technologies. Even Microsoft uses open-source licenses, such as BSD, for some software while integrating aspects of open source into its Shared Source Initiative.

As the imaginary line between the so-called open-source and commercial software camps melts away, many in the industry are looking for ways to improve industry collaboration even further. As Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said at the recent Intellectual Property & Technology Summit sponsored by the Association for Competitive Technology, "Were going to have to figure out how we can bring the various parts of our industry closer together. Not necessarily in the sense of changing the way software is developed, but building bridges so that we all have the ability to collaborate with each other."

While programmers are embracing a software industry that has shades of gray, Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation remain resolute in their black-and-white views, refusing to move beyond ideology. Recently, the FSF and its allies nearly scuttled the standards process for e-mail authentication simply because those who developed products with the authentication technology would have to go to a Web site to register it—not pay for it, just register it—with one click.

The software industry is evolving into a new stage of competition. If the FSF continues to hold its dogmatic view, it risks being left on the sidelines. As with so many conflicts around the world, the time for zealotry has passed, and the time for constructive solutions is at hand. Programmers are problem solvers. Lets solve this one.

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Jonathan Zuck is president of the Association for Competitive Technology and a former software industry executive and developer. ACT represents nearly 3,000 IT companies and e-businesses.

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