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Keynote #2 – Simon Phipps on what’s driving open source

Simon Phipps opened the keynote by explaining how Richard Stallman got sick of vendors not making source code available. By the end of the 1990s, there was a crisis. The web was emerging as a force for tremendous change in the topology of how information was spread around the world, and the choice of Apache here was crucial in opening the web. OSI was formed in 1998 to open gateways to open source with the mission of de-emphasising the ethical imperative, and a focus on practicalities such as education and building understanding.

License choice evolution

The original drivers of open source were to provide a stack of web server software – and this led to business model innovation; where you don’t have to rely on selling source code to generate revenue. Phipps explained how licenses are the ‘constitution for the community’ (attributed to Eben Moglen), and that the sign of discord in a community is when people start to care about what licenses are being used.

Phipps covered trends in open source licensing, and explained that there has been a move to ‘plus’ licenses; a base license is given and then additional rights are granted. Open source licenses are now also avoiding copyright assignment – which helps to sidestep acrimony in a community where one umbrella partner has an unequal stake in the project/source code. It is clear that Phipps is also a strong anti-patent campaigner; he explained how open source licenses are now also including umambiguous wording for dealing with patents to stop the problem of ‘parallel filing‘; where developers are encouraged by their employing organisation to patent their ideas and methods for solving computing problems as they undertake development. He was adamant that any open source licenses in the future need to contain explicit patent language.

He went on to categorise the classes of open source license that exist;

  • Class A – is unrestricted – you can use the code to create any work, and there are no restrictions on licensing. Examples are BSD and Apache. This is a ‘market creating’ license.
  • Class B – is file based – the files derived from commons must use license B, while files added may use any license. This is a ‘community protecting’ license.
  • Class C – is project based – all files in project C must use license C if derived from project C. This is a ‘transparency imposing’ license. Examples of this are GPLv2 and GPLv3.

Phipps explained that it is easy to scare businesses about open source licensing. They are terrified of having to release their source code – and want to hold on to it. The approach of businesses is changing though and instead of ‘vanity licensing’ companies are now realising the benefits of having wide, far-reaching communities – such as reduced barriers to the re-used of code. Hence we’re seeing a shift to ‘market creating’ liceses such as the Apache license as the governance structure of open source communities change.

Open source foundations

Phipps showed how corporations are increasingly thinking about open source as a way to bring together the commity rather than as a marketing tool. This has driven the need for open source foundations. He explained that the role of a foundation is to manage fiscal and other financial resources – such as trademarks, copyrights, staff and to act as an enable for governance, infrastructure provider and liability firewall for community participants, providing legal protection against litigation, and identifying risky contributions and patent rights.

Software patents

Phipps explained how a lot of companies use software patents for profit; fat patent troll companies exist whose sole business model is to buy patents and then explit them by demanding money from those they believe are infringing their patents. He emphasised the threat of dual filing – where a colleague working on a project will file a patent, the company will go bankrupt, the patent portfolio will be purchased and then used for litigation. Phipps argued that open source needs protection from litigation.

Some of the attempts to get around this include;

Patent pools – are not a lot of use according to Phipps; control can still be exercised by a dominant party as to who has the right to use the patent pool and gave the Google/Oracle example as a case in point.

  • Convenants – a way of contributors saying that patents generated by a community can be used by anyone – “any implementation of standard x is immune to a patent suit”. These are generally a good thing.
  • Software licenses – these are the best defence against parallel filing as they contain language that explicitly grants license over patents – and provide retribution against aggressors
  • Patron – a patron is able to stand up to the patent troll companies that exist simply to acquire patents and then demand money from those they believe are infringing the patents.

Cloud computing

The cloud means many things – including internet accessed storage, remote APIs, web app toolkits, essentially every kind of computing plus a network. Open source is everywhere. Software in the cloud needs the involvement of many parties to succeed, and this is giving rise to new business models. Companies like CloudBees take open source components and remodel them into service offerings; the differentiator here is the way the components are combined rather than the source code itself.

Big data

Big data is leading to the attitude that ‘software doesn’t matter’. Companies like Twitter and Facebook are releasing the code that they use internally – they don’t regard it as a differentiator anymore. Their offering, their competitive edge – is in the platform they provide, not the source code that delivers it. Their real assets are their operational skills. There is also a benefit to these companies in sharing the software¬† – it enriches their business and business model. Opensource is a component to business success – when you’re Twitter you don’t sell your software.

Future of Open Source Initiative

Phipps talked about how OSI is evolving, and how they want to invert OSI – so that the community is first rather than the board of directors. They will soon be restructuring and providing individual and corporate membership classes. He invited people to be part of the solution.

Footnote: I was very lucky to be able to sit next to Simon at the conference dinner, and found him to be an engaging and very knowledgeable conversationalist. One of the topics we discussed was that the general public doesn’t have an understanding of direct causality; they can only see cause and effect in one step. Hence, demonstrating to lay-people how privacy or rights are slowly eroded step by step by seemingly unrelated actions is a very difficult thing to do. It’s not that people are apathetic or don’t care; they just don’t comprehend the multiple steps of causality involved.