On being open (source) in Mind

January 15, 2007

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“When programmers on the Internet can read, redistribute and modify the source for a piece of software, it evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people can fix the bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing.” – The Open Source Initiative

The above shows why people care about open source, from a technical viewpoint. What’s missing are the companion thoughts that should go into the value of open source.

First, let’s review:

Open source rules are, simply enough:
Allow Free redistribution.
Allow Source code access.
Permit derived works.
Protect the integrity of the author’s source code.

These are pretty darn clear. (And debatable, but that gets us into licensing hell).

So what are the rules for using open source from a corporate view?

They are even easier.

Give credit where credit is due.

If you use someone else’s program, work, code fragments, or anything of the ilk, give them credit. This actually should go beyond open source; it’s a good rule for life. For example, when I was back at Cassatt Corporation, we built a complex automation control system, which makes use of other programs, and thus we created a “thanks to” page. (Don’t ask why it’s in the legal section). If you notice, it’s lengthy, and yet clearly recognizes that using open source for development, for delivery and so forth, reduces Cassatt’s industry-leading datacenter automation tools development complexity.

Return value equivalent to what is received.

Note, this doesn’t say, “Open source your products” or “All your base are belong to us“. This means if you get something, give something back. It can be in recognition, in other projects, in hosting (live or web), or opening other code. At SGI when we decided to adopt Linux, we also decided to identify and release code that would add value, such as XFS. We didn’t open IRIX (the operating system) since it was encumbered with OPS (Other Peoples Stuff), like trademarks, copyrights, and licenses.

Today, many, many companies make use of quality code that they received from what was, in end view, an open source effort. Let’s hope that somewhere, the non-zero-sum game that makes up open source usage is being played both competitively and cooperatively.

As always, comments welcome.

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