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The fuss about FOSS

Recently i have been following some very interesting conversations in the Free Open Source Software (FOSS or just OS) community. In case you have been on the moon for the last 10 years and have not had any news updates, I’ll fill you in. There are entire communities of people who are continually building all types of software that they distribute for free on the Internet. These people are computer programmers, graphic artists, copywriters and others. The software they build ranges from an operating system like GNU/Linux or to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, and my personal favorite, TiVo.These projects are built by mostly unpaid programmers who contribute their free time and knowledge to build a better program/operating system/encyclopedia. They are driven by an altruistic desire to build a better “whatever.” They, then release this “whatever” to the masses for free, who in turn take these programs and hopefully make money from their distribution or by providing support. Ideally, whenever someone makes money from these projects, they will turn around and support the project they are using, thereby supporting the programmers who in turn will be able to make an even better program. So this is an ongoing cycle with contributions helping to fund development.

Sometimes these free programs are backed by large companies such as Sun (creators of Java) or TiVo. They often distribute a core system free of charge and hope to get a user base hooked on their product so they could then sell them the advanced software with more robust features. And sometimes companies find it easier to find a open source project and build their own system on top of it. For example, there are wonderfully powerful SQL systems available for free, MySQL and PostgreSQL. They have been in development for 7+ years and are such powerful systems that the vast majority of today’s Internet applications are based on one or the other. It would be foolish for a small (or large) company to start building a product from the very ground up.

The potential of such integration is HUGE. Company A only needs to make sure that their product integrates with the FOSS project B. Company A does not need to worry about any potential security threats or unexpected crashes due to project B. Instead, the programmers for project B take care of all such issues. This way company A is able to focus on improving the usability of their own product, which, coincidentally, does not even have be FOSS.

So this gets us to the really interesting part, sometimes Open Source projects are not compatible with each other. You would think that these programmers would be smart enough to allow these programs to integrate, but the problem is not what you think. Sometimes their licenses are incompatible!

The two licenses that I’m most concerned about are the GPL and BSD licenses. The BSD license says “do whatever you want with this code” which means that you are free to take code and even distribute it as closed source, proprietary programs. Coincidentally, the Apple X operating system is based on FreeBSD with some (very major) changes. So according to this license, Apple is able to take the current FreeBSD code, change whatever they want to change and distribute it as an independent project. Thankfully, Apple was kind enough to contribute significant improvements back to the project, but they did not have to. The BSD license allows them complete independence. The company does not have to release its trade secrets, only what they chose to. However, it is in their own best interest to contribute back and make sure that FreeBSD continues to be a vibrant operating system. This way, for the next release of the Apple software, they simply grab the FreeBSD code base, apply their own changes to it, and they have an up to date system with full security patches.

So the point of this blog is the other, and probably more important license, the GPL. This one says, that you are free to distribute this program as long as you make all the changes available to the public. So any company that modifies the source code of any project, thereby improving it, will have to open up its changes (including trade secrets) to the greater community, and if these changes are quality, they are then going to be integrated into the main project. Linux is distributed under this license. The added complexity of GPL is that there are 2 separate GPL’s on the table today GPLv2 and GPLv3. The v3 is newer, more complicated and puts restrictions on how the code can be used. We are slowly making the transition from v2 to v3 but a lot of companies are unable to make this transition because they would have to open up their closed source addons to GPL’d software, which were allowed under v2. So companies have to make a choice, use old and buggy GPLv2 software or upgrade to GPLv3 and lose business. This is a big issue that is beyond the scope of this blog, and we’ll see how things work out in the coming years.

So as far as we’re concerned, the major difference between the two licenses are

BSD: you should do the Right Thing but we won’t force you
GPL: you have to do the Right Thing and contribute back to the project

As a active reader of the FreeBSD mailing list and Slasdot and various Linux lists, I have recently started to see a lot of chatter about how the GPLv3 license is superior to everything else. People froth at mouth (or keyboard) and spew such hatred towards the other camp. After reading through 10 pages of this drivel, I realized that these people are wrong. They are trying to make a better FREE license by putting more restrictions on how it can be used. This is ridiculous.

Seems to me that they forgot what all of this is about and are trying to bite the hand that feeds them. If you take out corporate money out of open source software, a lot of important projects will collapse. The real support ($$$) comes from corporations that support projects which help to make money. No corporate profit means no support. Live and let live, if someone makes good money using FOSS, more power to them!

Last time I checked, making money is good for the person/company making money and for the entire community which benefits from the added support, either through sponsorship or awareness which leads to more pubic support. Companies like Google, have entire teams of programmers working on Open Source software and contribute millions to improving other ongoing projects.

Not to mention that you simply cannot outlaw capitalism which is what they seem to be trying to do. If people are forced into the corner, they will find another exit. And guess what, the BSD license is not a bad alternative to GPL’d software. If the GPL people keep pushing, they will just drive away developers to the other camp.

FOSS is great for all of us. Everyone should step back, take a deep breath and refocus on building better software rather than bickering about nonsense.

Oh, and for the record, this entire document is entirely not open for redistribution without my permission. How is that for a license 🙂

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