RealTime IT News

Open Source as a Social Movement

SAN FRANCISCO -- If the 60s were the civil rights, Linux advocates say this generation should be about upholding digital rights.

"Sadly when we should be talking about craftsmanship of Linux, we are talking about litigation," Red Hat CEO Matt Szulik said LinuxWorld Conference and Expo 2003 here. "That's wasn't the open source community that I visited a few years ago."

Szulik should know, his company filed a lawsuit this week to distance itself from a copyright battle between SCO Group (formerly Caldera International) and IBM , one that has definite implications for the open source community.

During his keynote, Szulik called on partners, developers and the like to make sure that the open source movement goes in a positive direction.

"We're at a time in this industry when how we move the industry forward will face a challenge," he said. "Our competitors have deep pockets."

The sentiment was echoed by analyst Bruce Perens, whose annual 'Open Source State of the Union' presentation this week pointed to some sobering views on the rough road ahead for open source.

"This is a 'Linux' show, focusing upon a product. But the real subject of this trade show -- Free Software and Open Source -- is a social movement," Perens said. "Like other social movements, it advances its own ideas - in our case, ideas about software quality, competition, copyrights and patents as property. It's extremely unusual in that few other social movements make real products. The only thing that comes close to it in the social space is art. We have so far manufactured over $2 billion U.S. dollars worth of software for everyone's free use. And the fact that we make real products has made us real enemies."

Perens says the movement's most visible enemy today is SCO. But behind SCO stand more serious enemies like Microsoft , which he claims has provided significant funds for SCO to pursue its war on Free Software.

"The most dangerous part of SCO is not the case itself, it's the fact that it distracts us from more dangerous threats," Preens said. "I urge everyone to start looking forward, and let those directly involved in the SCO cases resolve them while we pursue more important enemies."

In addition to the Redmond faction and other proprietary advocates, Perens says Open Source developers face dangers from software patents such as a unified European software patenting, which the European Community parliament is expected to vote for next month.

To fight the rising tide, Perens is calling for all Open Source projects to incorporate mutual software patent defense terms into their licenses. Under these terms, if one Open Source developer is sued for patent infringement, all of the licenses of Open Source software used by the plaintiff terminate.

"If people are going to pursue us with software patents, the least we can do is make sure they don't profit from our software," Perens said.

Larry Rosen of the Open Source Initiative Software is currently developing the patent mutual defense terms but the licenses are still evolving.

"There may be anti-trust problems with them that we haven't yet worked through. It may be a problem getting the Free Software Foundation to accept such terms, simply because they are uncomfortable with adding restrictions. But I think they can be won over to the idea," Perens said.

Other problems facing Open Source users include what Perens calls the rise of "Proprietary Open Source". The best example of that is Red Hat Advanced Server, which could terminate a service contract if Red Hat's service information is released to other vendors. Beyond the PC and server world, Perens also points to a denial of access to popular culture such as the current illegal stance of playing DVD discs using Open Source software.

"This is going to be much more of a problem with the rise of Palladium, because most Web pages will eventually be protected by DRM to prevent source viewing, printing, and saving," Perens said. "The Web sites want to charge you for printing, etc., so they will go for that. When you can't use Mozilla to view a web site, Open Source becomes an uncommunicating island and nobody will be able to use it."

As for turning the tide, Szulik and Perens both pointed to organizations like the newly founded Open Source And Industry Alliance (OSAIA) as a possible mouthpiece for the community. Despite a core group of about a dozen Washington insiders working on the project however, the non-profit has yet to announce membership beyond the Desktop Linux Consortium.

As Szulik points out, "Who is willing to step off of IRC and blaze a trail?"