Open Source Strategies

A blog about open source software and business models, enterprise software, and the opentaps Open Source ERP + CRM Suite.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Is Commercial Open Source Bad?

Two recent articles, Commercial open source, a misnomer? and Free Code For Sale, may be the beginnings of a backlash against the "commercial open source" model. One challenges whether commerce and open source mix at all, while the other asks whether other models of open source development may be better for users.

It's inevitable that any major change would have its detractors. First open source was out to destroy capitalism. Now is commercial open source out to destroy open source? Is this capitalism's revenge, a case of the empire striking back? Let's look at some of the common arguments.

Commercial open source is not open source.

"Open source software" means software which is available under a certain license, as defined by the Open Source Initiative. As long as it is available under an OSI-approved license, software is open source. Being open source does not imply any other obligations on the licensor or licensee, nor does it require either to become a non-profit organization. It is inconsistent, if not hypocritical, to hail Netscape or IBM for releasing software under an OSI license and then criticize a startup for funding and releasing new software under the same license.

It is bad to use open source for marketing.

Is it in general bad for corporations to sponsor any charitable activities, including the arts, education, environment, or health care, for marketing? If you think so, then you're in the minority. Most non-profits actively solicit corporate funding to help expand their activities, and most consumers react either positively or at least are neutrally to corporations who fund charities.

Commercial Open Source Projects don't build communities.

There are two flaws in this argument. First, if the community contributes greater value to the software than it costs the commercial open source vendor to support the community, then it is rational for the vendor to support the community. It is a simple matter of economics. If the vendor does not, then it is not the commercial open source model that is bad, but rather the vendor who is doing it badly.

Second, statements like this imply a level of helplessness which should not happen with open source software. If you disagree with the commercial open source vendor's approach, go fork their source code and start your own community. Can the "community" you build outstrip their "corporate" development effort and deliver a better product for the users? If not, then their approach is probably better.

It is bad to use open source for marketing.

Is it bad to make a living with open source? If not, then is it bad for a developer to sell his services? If not, then why would it be bad for a company to sell a products? Should open source developers be limited to "making a living" with open source, or is it better that they also have a chance to build a company and "get rich"?

In the end, it's a matter of how much open source code you'd like to see. If you think developers should not be able to make a living, then we'd have very little code written only by hobbyists. If you think developers should be able to make a living, but there is no room for capital, investors, and entrepreneurs, then we'd have a cottage industry of self-employed open source developers. If, however, you do think that there is a place for commercial open source, then maybe open source could challenge commercial software as a dominant paradigm for creating and distributing software.

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