Another viewpoint on open source software

The other day I had an interesting conversation with a girl who works at a large multinational bank for the internal auditing department. She has an economic background and does a parttime Economy study. While chatting about work, she asked me what the latest news in IT was. However, after the latest news, the conversation took another inway and what follows is an interesting viewpoint that the business side can have on open source software.

B: I have an interesting story. You know how I told you the other day about the Linux kernel? You know how it's developed?

G: Yeah, by that Linus guy, right?

B: Yeah, well, anyway, I'd like to tell you about the power of licensing. Because as it happens, you don't just keep source code on disk, but big projects use version control systems. That way, they can always go back one version.

G: Why do they do that?

B: Well, for different reasons. For one thing, you might have different versions for different customers. Also, you can go back and see what you changed. You can find bugs that way, for instance.

G: And Linux uses this kind of software?

B: Well, not quite. Such systems use one server to store all the code. But because with the Linux kernel, everybody keeps a copy in its own server, this doesn't work that way. It used to be that people mailed their changes to Linus, but that was a lot of work for him. So they started using a commercial product where you can synchronize the different servers in one go. This product is called BitKeeper and the guy who made it, gave the Linux kernel developers a free license.

Anyway, Linus and some other hackers work for a not-for-profit organization and one of the people there started disassembling the BitKeeper format in his spare time. And guess what? All their licenses got revoked! (Not really true, grossly simplified)

G: Yeah, so?

B: Well, that just goes to show the power of software licensing. You don't own a copy of the software, just like you would buy a car.

G: No, you have the right to use it.

B: Yeah. And what's more, it can be revoked anytime. It's not like a VCR that you buy and that's completely yours.

G: Yeah. You can throw that VCR out of the window if you like. And you can pull it apart to see what's happening inside. But what is your point?

B: Well, with licensing you can put a lot of clauses in the license. And the other party is obliged to conform to it, otherwise you revoke the license. Don't you think the BitKeeper situation is a bit of a funny situation?

G: No, of course not. That developer that tried to reverse-engineer the BitKeeper format was essentially trying to copy the product. If I sold that software, I would immediately revoke the license. What else would I do? It's completely understandable and I am surprised that this is all legal.

I find it a bit the same way with Linux. Basically, a lot of stuff is copied from Microsoft. I don't understand it, I mean I can't just take a Philips DVD recorder and make an exact copy of it, can I?

B: No, it's probably protected by patents.

G: Right. So, why is it possible with software? I know that Microsoft did a lot of underhanded manoeuvering, but this copying isn't honest either. Isn't it true that Linux looks a lot like Windows?

B: Well, sometimes it seems that every version is getting closer.

G: Yeah, and that could undermine the market completely. After all, it's completely free. You know, there's a story behind this. In the history of economics, there are several theories and one of the earliest theories says that economic progress is made with the combination of capital and labor.

However, that didn't really add up; there was more progress than could be explained by the combination of those two. So, economists said that the third factor was knowledge. Later, it turned out that wasn't exactly true either. Knowledge isn't like capital and labor, it's something that belongs to everyone. If knowledge is gained, then everybody profits. So theories were revised and it was said that progress was made through research and development.

It's exactly this R&D that Linux undermines. After all, why would you invest heavily in R&D if you know it's copied? And while we're on the subject, I'm not so sure that the semi-monopoly that Microsoft has, is all bad. With semi-monopoly, I mean that one company has a very large part of the market but there are still other players. It's not a complete monopoly.

There are theories that a semi-monopoly is good for progress because the high profits make more R&D possible. On the other hand, it's more difficult to enter the market so that stifles innovation a bit. But still, there are both advantages and disadvantages.

B: I hadn't thought about that. However, over the ages, science always has shared knowledge.

G: That's true. Innovation takes place at universities as well. [...] cut


The conversation continued after that, however it's quite interesting (some would say shocking) to see which opinions are formed. There's a big advocacy task to be done by the Linux community (and in general Open Source community) and this talk shows exactly the points that should be addressed.