Open source or proprietary: Killing creativity or enabling end-users

Published: March 6, 2011

The debate on whether open source software is a boon or a bane intensifies as Android outsells all proprietary smartphone OSs. DESIGN: AMNA IQBAL

Open Source Software has been a huge blessing to the software community and businesses in general.

There is nothing better than finding a free, open source software that already does what you want, rather than having to purchase it or build it yourself. At the same time some large software corporations have always had issues with OSS, and not entirely because it’s free and competes with their products. In large part, this is due to the fact that open source software is the opposite of copyright, it is essentially a “copyleft” licence.

One of the most popular open source licences is the GPL licence (GNU Public Licence). The gist of the licence is that people are free to use the software and improve it. They are even free to sell it. But if they distribute it, they must share the source code of the software along with it. This allows other users to change the software if they wish. This essentially makes it hard for the company to continue to charge a price on the product, because any other software company can take the source code, build it into an application and sell it for a lesser price, or for free as is commonly the case. So open-source software by its own nature also ends up being free software and its ambitions are to pool together the community efforts to build a better software for everyone.

The critics of open source software, typically corporations, contend that there is no such thing as a free lunch and in a closed environment, such a model is non-sustainable as there is no income generation by which the community can sustain itself if they only engage in open source software. Consequently, companies like Red Hat provide a free operating system but charge for support and maintenance rather than the product itself. The other contention the same detractors of open source software have is that it provides a lower-quality offering and stifles the kind of competition that comes from capitalistic incentives. It’s an argument that is increasingly hard to defend with products like Google’s open-source Android operating system that recently overtook Apple’s iPhone in quarterly sales volume.

Another major contention for the same corporations is that open source software is “viral”. Under typical copyright law, all derivative works are also considered copyrights of the original copyright owner. This means that if you write a book and someone writes a book that is based on your work, you own the rights to the new book. This is designed to prevent plagiarism and keep content companies, such as newspapers, in business. However, if the content were offered under a copyleft licence instead of copyright, the same content would be free for all to slice and dice with the stipulation that it is free for everyone else to do the same with it. For this reason, if copyright work includes copyleft work, then the entire corpus of work becomes copyleft, rendering the copyright parts open for all. Large corporations have strict policies in place to prevent such open source work from “polluting” their copyright work and ability to monetise it.

Neither side is wrong or right, rather, there are philosophical differences. Copyright promotes the creation of intellectual capital, incentivised, typically through financial gain – a capitalist model. Copyleft promotes community engagement where all are free to use and build upon a shared body of work that the community can ultimately benefit from. Oftentimes, companies will donate code to the open source community or developers will spare some of their time working toward open source projects while sustaining themselves through proprietary means.

The writer is heading Online Strategy and Development at Express Media and can be contacted at aleem.bawany@express.com.pk

Published in The Express Tribune, March 7th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (6)

  • Mar 7, 2011 - 2:36AM

    Great article!!. One clarification for readers looking in to details.

    Free Software Foundation’s GNU GPL is Free Software license. Open Source Initiative (OSI) has also approved GNU GPL as Open Source license. It is indeed the most popular license among free software and open source. Please read more at http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-software-for-freedom.htmlRecommend

  • davide
    Mar 7, 2011 - 4:26AM

    You have a pretty incomplete and misleading view of Open Source and Free Software. Take PostgreSQL, for example, and its very large ecosystem of (proprietary!) related products, based on it. And there are several other examples! You should document yourself before writing for a magazine!Recommend

  • Mar 7, 2011 - 6:56PM

    @davide: I am in agreement with you. I talk about Red Hat which is built on top of open source and is a profitable, sustainable business. Nowhere do I say you can’t make money off open source software. You can build support on top of it, write modules for it, create wrappers around it and so forth. Ultimately, the core needs to be open unless go the other route, which is to have a proprietary core and use open modules within it (Mac OS X). The ethos of open source is to keep it free and allow the community to benefit from and develop upon it. And CopyLeft in general protects that purpose by stipulating share-alike terms.Recommend

  • ehh
    Mar 7, 2011 - 8:40PM

    You say that large corporations are avoiding FOSS and only cite copyright issues. I’m really not sure that companies avoid open source software solely because they are worried about copyrights. Most of the open source licenses allow you to use the software however you want.

    IMO large organizations avoid open source because:
    – Stability is not guaranteed
    – In general, poor support and documentation
    – Legal status/IP with regards to customization
    – Usually not as mature as commercial solutions

    The fact of the matter is that the majority of open source projects are not as good as the commercial competitors. They are around because someone decided they wanted to do it their own way, or they just didn’t want to pay for the functionality they needed.Recommend

  • Brad
    Mar 7, 2011 - 11:01PM

    @Aleem – I don’t think Davide read/understood the article.Recommend

  • Mar 8, 2011 - 1:41PM

    @ehh: I am referring to software corporations, where FOSS “competes with their products”. Sorry I didn’t make that clearer. Microsoft for example considers copyleft licences to be “viral”. That is to say, that once it makes its way into their code base, it “pollutes” their intellectual property. This is due to the nature of copyleft which says that all derivative works must be open as well. That means if MS Office adopted open source components for its spell check, it would have to open up its entire spell check module. Similarly, software organizations will often use “clean room design” to avoid copyright infringements and some even go so far as to discourage employees from reading open source code, for fear that some parts of it may accidentally make it into proprietary code and “pollute” it.

    In the context of client corporations, you are absolutely right. Support is the biggest issue and even though OSS has some great communities where you can seek help, there is no SLA; and these communities are often a hit or miss. The maturity issue is not exclusive to OSS, proprietary software can also suffer from the same though there is comfort in knowing that a large corporation with funds is backing the product you intend to use. Again, regarding maturity, most OSS sites now allow you to view their maturity level, recent activity on the project, frequent contributors, open bug count, project history and so forth. Apache is a great open source software that powers a large majority of the world’s websites, is extremely mature, stable and works across multiple platforms.Recommend

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