Sorry for not posting in awhile – things have been crazy around the office. At least one of my three readers is a client and if he has an open support issue but sees I have time to write a blog post, he tends to point that out. Let’s just say I’d rather be busy as hell versus the alternative.
The big news in our little world this week is an InfoWorld article on open source “leeches”, a term attributed to Dave Rosenberg to refer to people who use “open source technology but don’t give back to the open source community”.
I’ve talked about “free loaders” in the past so I won’t rehash those comments here. Plus, there are already a number of great comments from folks like Mike Hogan and Jeremy Garcia. My comments will be along somewhat different lines.
When people write, I try to understand their motivation. I write this blog to both chronicle my experiences with open source as well as to promote both OpenNMS and the value of 100% open source software. So, why did InfoWorld publish this article?
A clue is in the subtitle which states “as commercial open source becomes the norm, fewer developers are giving back”. The key word there is “commercial”. The term “commercial open source” is often used by the “fauxpen source” community to describe their business model, which I like to say is along the lines of “Free Food Today, Just $5”. While not to pick at that scab, many of these “commercial” companies were hoping for a lot of community involvement and contribution, and they seem surprised when it doesn’t appear. They then turn around and label people who use their open source software without payment or code contributions as “leeches” and “free riders”.
I have been saying for years now that simply labeling your product as “open source” does not mean that thousands of qualified people will give up nights and weekends to work on it. I think it is even harder to get those people to contribute when there is a commercial model behind the product that seeks to commercialize the code itself. In my experience, the line tends to be drawn at companies that dual license 100% of the code (like MySQL used to). If you can get 100% of the code under an open license, even if you can pay and get it under a proprietary license, the community, while uneasy, is still accepting. Those companies with a “community” version and an “enterprise” version cross that line (since the features in the enterprise version are not open) and thus discourage contribution.
Eric S. Raymond, one of the creators of the term “open source”, references in Homesteading the Noosphere what he calls the “gift culture”. While open source removes some of the philosophical trappings of free software, it is still driven by the idea that the code produced is a gift. Webster defines a gift as “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation”.
It seems from the InfoWorld post that certain creators of open source software are expecting compensation, in either money or free code contribution. No wonder they are unhappy. If you expect or require compensation, don’t use the open source model or an open source license.
If you want to realize the true benefits of open source, it helps if you embrace it fully. If you want to sell software licenses, then open source is probably not for you. We are blessed at OpenNMS to have a community that includes over 40 people with full commit access to our code repository. It has taken us almost a decade to build to that, but one way we have done it is by being completely honest about our 100% open source development philosophy. That has built up trust between the commercial side and the community side of the project that we’re not just here to sell the honey the community bees make (to borrow an analogy).
I love our leeches and free loaders and anyone who finds value in the OpenNMS project. Outside of our committers, we have tons of people who answer questions on the mailing lists, update the wiki or contribute in some measurable way to the success of the project just by using it.
Sometimes when I meet people at conferences they’ll say “we love OpenNMS, but I’m sorry that we don’t buy a support contract”. I always reply “Don’t worry about it – just the fact that you find the work we do useful is thanks enough”.
Consider it a gift.
UPDATE: We were on a call with a new client in California, and we asked them why they chose OpenNMS. They told us that their bandwidth provider, AT&T, told them to, since that is was they use in house. Heh, I guess that makes AT&T a damn leech, right? (grin)