Commercializing Open-Source Stirs Debate

Some open-source supporters call recent moves by Mozilla and DCC "selling out," while others argue that having commercial ties is neither wrong nor new.

As Mozilla and the Debian Core Consortium move toward commercialization of open-source projects, open-source supporters debate whether this trend is a good idea.

While analysts tend to see events like Mozilla spinning off a commercial company and the numerous small Debian companies and groups uniting behind the DCC (Debian Core Consortium) as part of a natural trend, some within the open-source community arent happy about it.

Gordon Haff, senior analyst for Illuminata Inc., said in a recent report, "Some of the most influential members of the Open Source community have always been belligerent. … But for the most part, discussions remain in the realm of reason, rather than invective."

However, Haff said, "That tone has shifted dramatically in recent months … as the increasing commercialization of open source has raised both the stakes and the tension level.

"From articles to online discussion boards to even personal real world discussions, there is increasingly the sense of an Open Source orthodoxy that must be defended at all costs, and not just from its enemies."

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read more about plans for the future of Debian Linux.

This attitude is reflected in a recent public comment on Mozilla, titled "If it walks like a sell-out…" The comment concludes, "I think the key players within Mofo [the Mozilla Foundation] know, no matter how they would like to rationalize it in their minds, that on its face the changes are a sell-out to the spirit and ideals of the Mozilla community."

Not all members of the community consider Mozillas commercial move to be selling out, or, for that matter, that anything major has changed for open source. Eric Raymond, co-founder of the OSI (Open Source Initiative, argued that theres "nothing new here. This kind of commercialization has been part of the scene since the first Yggdrasil [the first CD-ROM based Linux] distribution in 1993."

/zimages/6/28571.gifRead more here about Mozillas decision to "go corporate."

Others take a more jaundiced view of commercialization.

"As I read the news, it comes to me that these days companies in the United States appear to have more rights than either individuals or nonprofit organizations, so I am not surprised," said Theo de Raadt, leader of the OpenBSD operating system and OpenSSH network security protocol teams.

"I think it is entirely a U.S. trend, and you should look at how the legal system has changed in your country over the last few years," de Raadt, a Canadian citizen, said.

Others present commercialization as a necessary evil.

"I dont think this is an approach that many open-source projects need to consider, but bigger projects do need some kind of full-time staff to help destress all the volunteers and provide some long-term consistency to their actions. I see way too much [in the way of] hair-pulling and heroic volunteer efforts, and worry about sustainability," said one prominent open-source developer.

Bruce Perens, well-known open-source advocate and SourceLabs Inc. vice president, said, "Mozilla is unusual in that it is a 501(c)3 [a type of non-profit corporation] that directly employs a large paid software development staff. … The only other similar organization I can think of is Open Source Application Foundation, operated by many of the same people as Mozilla. So, it makes sense for that sort of organization to own a for-profit."

Still, Perens said, "most Open Source projects are able to muster a large programming staff without directly paying for [it], and you would thus see business relationships more like that of the DCC supporters and Debian."

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