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.comment: Lawyers, Guns, and Money - page 2

KDE and Corel: Working in the Real World

  • June 14, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Instead, I am proposing that there are several potential conflicts here. Moreover, it is illustrative of a situation, likely to be encountered more and more as software vendors dip their toes into open source, frought with the potential for abuse--in effect, for a company to get the bulk of their programming for free, then add their own icing, copyright it (a la Microsoft's hijacking of Kerberos), and freeze out everyone else. What if a company were to join a development effort, learn from the developers familiar with the project, contribute a little, then release a version with all kinds of features that weren't offered to the project as a whole? That's certainly the company's right. Might even be smart business.

Even uglier, one could imagine--and this example is entirely hypothetical--a situation where the top people in a development effort accepted what lawyers call "valuable considerations" in exchange for looking the other way as a project got steered in a way that benefits a particular company. Nothing illegal about it.

Less sinister but troublesome nonetheless is the simple culture clash when open source meets commercial software. Corporations play it close to the vest, open source does anything but. The place where they meet can be awkward and frictional--it's hard to imagine them being otherwise. The potential for abuse is real as well. Indeed, Jon "Maddog" Hall of Linux International has done and is doing much to educate corporations about a crucial reality: they don't own the system and they cannot mandate changes in it. He has helped many companies understand the differences between closed, proprietary software and open source.

Of course, the Linux movement itself has its own minefields. I have used "open source" as a generic term for software that you can get in source code, compile, and use for free. But this is not a sufficient definition of free software for a substantial part of the community, the most famous and vocal leader of which is Richard M. Stallman, the legendary RMS. I asked him about corporate involvement with open source packages, such as Corel's with KDE.

"There is certainly conflict between Corel and the free software movement," he replied. "They are developing non-free software, and that is directly contrary to our goals and our views. Whether it conflicts with the open source movement, I cannot say, and it is not of concern to me; I am not a supporter of the open source movement. You would have to talk with them about that question."

Oops. The point having been well taken, he continued.

"I can't answer questions like this about 'open source', because by answering I would encourage the confusion of thinking I support the open source movement. But I can answer as regards free software. I think that corporate contribution to any particular free software development activity is always welcome, but corporate influence in impeding the extension of free software to do an additional job is obstructionism."

It must be noted, too, that the free software movement doesn't regard KDE as being "free," under the rationale that keeps it out of Debian distributions.

The leading voice of open source is Eric S. Raymond, again one of the few in the Linux community recognized just by his initials. ESR is watching more and more corporations become involved; his philosophy embraces the idea that closed development is old and creaky, while open source development is young and robust. A company will do it the new way or die:

"I'm not worried. What I see is corporations realizing that if they want our results, they have to buy into our process--and if they don't, they'll be eaten by a competitor who does."

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