Open Source Doomed?!?

Megan McArdle over at Tech Central Station thinks Open Source software may be doomed. Megan's thesis is primarily based on the current SCO v. IBM litigation, but she admits to and weaves into her argument a lack of understanding on how open source software can become popular and displace traditional software in the market.

I have to admit that I was never much of a believer in open source. Maybe my business school coursework rendered me blind to the glorious vision of a "gift culture" in which people contribute their work to a decentralized development project like Linux for honor instead of money. Or possibly I'm just too thick to understand how cutting off a multi-billion dollar revenue stream from software sales, without putting anything else in its place, could be good for the software business. Whatever the problem, I never quite believed in the fairy tale world they promised in which we'd all get an operating system that was better than Windows in every way, for absolutely no money -- not even when IBM started retailing Linux PC's and the juggernaut of fabulous free operating systems seemed unstoppable.

George Gilder in Wealth & Poverty points out that gift cultures are really quite capitalist, they include expectations of return gifts including interest. The return for any given code contribution is another code contribution that improves the software. The individuals producing open-source software value their individual contributions less than end-users value the whole product, and they may well be the same person. Also, many contributors value the exchange of effort towards a common goal more than their individual effort might net them in dollars, while other contributors are being paid as software engineers and programmers. The purpose of software is not enabling a multi-billion dollar software industry, only the software companies care about software revenue streams. The purpose of software is as a tool to help industries and individuals be more productive. IBM has a fair number of developers working on Linux, but receives much greater value in outside contributions. Companies are spending money on Linux developers because they can then have a better OS than if they developed it entirely by themselves. End-users can (and do) contribute engineering and QA resources (they already do with proprietary software anyways), and some companies are finding that open source software is in fact better for them than any available proprietary software for specific applications. Moreover, many companies spend considerable money on software development even though their business is not software development. The cost of sharing this software is much less than the benefit of features added by others, thus they share it. I'm not sure exactly where the misunderstanding is, but the market has determined that there is definitely some good business sense in open source software, just as the market has determined that some open source based business models are worthless.

Moving on to the central point of the article, Megan asserts:

But I confess that in all my skeptical musings, I did not imagine that Linux might be brought down by something even more prosaic than a lack of funds: a lawsuit.

Yet that's looking ever more likely. SCO, which makes a proprietary version of Unix that Linux competes with, has filed a suit against the manufacturers of Linux boxes for copyright infringement. IBM, which has been promoting Linux relentlessly, is now announcing a countersuit, but it centers mostly on side issues, rather than the key question: did one of Linux's thousands of volunteer developers illegally stick code stolen from SCO into Linux? Though those who have seen the code in contention say that SCO probably has a case, it doesn't seem to be much of a case: the stolen bits seem to be fairly trivial and easily replaced. But of course, the object of this lawsuit is not to stop Linux from using the code; it's to stop Linux from eating SCO Unix's lunch. And it seems to me that it's very likely to succeed.

I do not see the whole lawsuit issue the same way. After reading the initial SCO complaint, I posted to an email list that I thought the SCO complaint was either fraudulent or the authors were grossly negligent in researching the issues. Even with the ammended complaint, I am still wondering if SCO is being fraudulent or really has no clue. There are a lot of identical lines in SCO's UNIX code and in Linux, but these lines are twins not clones, both were taken from code in the public domain.

In addition, the IBM countersuit is more than just side issues. The countersuit seems similar to strategy University of California Berkeley used against AT&T/Novell (AT&T sold the UNIX rights to Novell during the litigation). In that suit AT&T claimed the BSD operating system violated AT&T's UNIX rights, Berkeley claimed AT&T violated Berkeley rights. By the time all was said and done Novell ended up settling, the two codebases were so intertwined that Novell would end up having to re-develop major portions of UNIX code if they fought it out.

The expectation of indemnity is rather false in regards to most proprietary software. Most End-User License Agreements (EULA) specifically offer no indemnity, warranty, or even claims to be fit for use. What makes this really scary for the lawsuit paranoid IT director is that with proprietary software noone in his organization can look at the code to make sure it does not violate any intellectual property rights. Meanwhile open source software allows anyone to look at the code. Even if there is infringing code in Linux, the fact that SCO/Caldera has had access, including software engineers and programmers actively working on the Linux code, may prove to be SCO's undoing in this case.

I just don't see Open Source falling to a law suit.

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It seems like somebody has

It seems like somebody has been announcing the imminent demise of Open Source software weekly for the last 3 years. When I saw the title of the article on GeekPress, I expected the author would turn out to be Jim DeLong or Sonia Arrison, two people who never seem to tire of parroting Microsoft FUD. I am gratified that Ms. McArdle was able to write about Open Source without using the words "communist" or "socialist".