Open Source: Is It or Isnt It?

Opinion: Companies must be held accountable for their "open-source" claims.

What is "is," and why arent we watching more closely for when companies use "is" even though what they are selling isnt?

Im talking about open source.

I get pitched on products to review all the time, and theres a lot of free use of the term "open source" in discussions, and occasionally in product marketing material, when the products involved arent open-source at all.

Many companies are really just talking about their products running on open-source platforms, such as LAMP, without actually taking the plunge.

Thats certainly an issue, but Im more concerned with the occasional company that says it has an open-source product, but there may be restrictions in the license about derivative work and the ability of a third party to sell this allegedly open-source software.

There are really two problems. First, open source is a descriptive term.

While an accepted meaning exists, per the Open Source Initiatives definition, the entrepreneurial spirit is such that people will always be trying to put the term to their own use, and policing could prove difficult.

The second is that there are too many licenses, making it needlessly difficult for buyers to determine if a company really is freely licensing the technology.

I put the question about the number of licenses and misuse of the term "open source" to the board of OSI.

/zimages/2/28571.gifRead more here about the debate over Microsofts new Office Open XML Formats.

In an e-mail response, the OSIs Eric Raymond indicated that OSI would like to reduce the number of licenses, and is working to do so.

Raymond also said OSI makes an active effort to make sure companies dont abuse the term "open-source" when they clearly are not.

Right now, there are more than 50 OSI-approved licenses. There probably ought to be about 10.

In practical terms, the number of public licenses is likely well over a hundred (possibly hundreds) because of derived licenses that include minor changes such as including developer credits.

More broadly, shouldnt the industry as a whole be considering standard ways to license products that fit the middle ground between restrictive EULAs and open source?

Ultimately, the market is going to decide what is fair as much for the quality of the code as for how a product is licensed.

The market could theoretically determine that a company could elicit and receive contributions to its code base from third parties while having a restrictive public license that isnt open-source.

Shouldnt someone be exploring how to develop that market? ´

eWeek Labs Technical Analyst Michael Caton can be reached at

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