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USENIX Technical Program - Abstract - USENIX 99

Business Issues in Free Software Licensing

Donald K. Rosenberg, Stromian Technologies


There are some odd ideas circulating about Linux and the Free Software or Open Source movements.  We can call these ideas primitive because they are simplistic and not well thought-out, and because they go back to the reductio ad absurdum of the primitive peoples who believed (and still believe, we hear) in what anthropologists like to talk about as the "cargo cults."

According to the anthropologists, these movements began among South Seas peoples in the 19th century, when they awaited the arrival of large ships which would restore to them all the wonderful goods their peoples had owned once, long ago.    After World War II these cults took the form of waiting for aircraft to descend from the skies with their abundant cargoes.  We are told that the believers even constructed runways with mock aircraft on them, hoping to attract the passing air traffic.

We all smile--how much more we know than they--but today there is a firm body of thought on the one hand that eventually all software in the future will be produced, shared, and enjoyed on the Bazaar model:  freely developed and given away by loosely-organized programmers around the world, and superior in quality and design to the commercial products of today.  Given the behavior of much modern commercial software, one can understand why the believers hope so fervently for the millennium.

But commercial vendors are just as likely to make the same mistake:  we see articles and columnists hyping the idea that if a software firm can just take the leap of faith into arms of Open Source, they will attract legions of the world's smartest programmers, working ceaselessly and without compensation to improve the code the vendor has thrown among them.  It does not help that any announcement that a company is releasing source code is regarded by the business community as a desperate act of last resort.

What should be the approach of a commercial software vendor to the Open Source space?  And what do they really want, anyway?

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Last changed: 13 Mar 2002 ml
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