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Open core is not a crimeMatthew Aslett, July 2, 2010 @ 10:44 am ET
One of the reasons I described the current debate about open core as futile is that there seems to be no hope of it ever reaching conclusion. This is partly because, as Stephen O’Grady notes, the anti-open core brigade have not put forward any potential remedies. Stephen argues that this is because there are no potential remedies. I would go further in arguing that there is, in fact, nothing to remedy.
The vendor controlled open core model sees a vendor offering an open source core project a license approved by the Open Source Initiative, as well as using dual licensing to offer a proprietary version, which also has additional features and functionality, that is not open source.
Simon Phipps has articulated why this strategy does not meet the approval of software freedom advocates, but in doing so, in my opinion, mischaracterises the relationship between vendors with open core strategies and open source.
The description of open core as exploiting loopholes in the system suggests that vendors with open core strategies are deliberately bending the Open Source Definition. However, as we have noted before, the OSD applies only to the license of the underlying code, and does nothing to prevent dual licensing or proprietary extensions.
Simon Phipps has claimed that the “OSI can and will challenge use of “open source” in relation to closed strategies” but so far has offered no response to the obvious question that is prompted by this statement.
Simon also argues that vendors with open core strategies “wrap themselves in the open source flag”. The accusation is that by referring to themselves as “open source vendors” they are misleading world-be users. This is a potentially fair criticism, but it is one that in my experience most vendors with open core strategies have rectified.
As we found with last year’s open core transparency test, most vendors have improved their communication in order to avoid confusion (which is in their own best interests).
Additionally, the core software is open source, and available under an OSI-approved license, and the users retain all the freedoms that are associated with that.
While I fully appreciate why software freedom advocates are uncomfortable with vendors that offer any proprietary software referring themselves as “open source vendors”, I do not believe that there is anything they can do about it for the same reasons noted above. This is why this debate continues ad nauseum. The fact that open core opponents seem strangely unwilling to name and shame the vendors they see as gaming the system doesn’t help matters.
Another of the misconceptions about open core is that something – be it code or freedom – is being taken away from users.
It is this assumption that led Henrik Ingo to compare it to theft. “We don’t approve of stealing, and there are several measures against stealing, in particular laws and criminal punishments. Yet, from this it doesn’t follow that stealing is only a crime if you get caught! So if you put closed source modules into your open source product, and nobody notices, then you’re still not open source.”
UPDATE – As can be seen in the comments below Henrik denies that he was comparing open core to theft, noting that he was “using theft and society’s punishment against it as an analogue, to criticise Mårten’s use of “self adjusting system” as a blanket permission to do anything he wants. But nowhere did I explicitly or implicitly say that open core is comparable to stealing.” He later added, however, that “theft goes against the values of our society, whereas open core goes against the values of the open source community” – UPDATE
This comparison is incorrect
on the one hand because open core does not involve putting closed source modules into open source, and on the other because adding closed source extensions to the core does not take anything away from the open source user.
They still have the core. They are still free to run the core, to modify it, to distribute it, and to extend it. They are still free, in fact, to fork it and to replicate the vendor’s closed source extensions. They still have all their software freedoms.
It is true to say, however, that certain features are being witheld from them. The fear is that open core prompts the vendor to produce a deliberately crippled core in order to drive users to its proprietary version, but that would be completely self-defeating.
As we previously noted, “There is no point trying to compel community users to become customers by providing them with substandard software and waving an enterprise version at them. It won’t build a community, and it won’t build brand. That is neither the best, nor the right way to generate revenue from open source.” Some vendors have tried that approach. They didn’t last long.
That all being said, I appreciate why advocates of software freedom are wary of open core. It does perpetuate proprietary software licensing, and it does so via open source. But that does not make it a crime. And a considerable amount of code has been contributed to the commons by vendors with open core strategies. Meanwhile even those that would wish to do something to remedy the situation are without the means to do so. Hence the endless and futile debate.
So what is to be done? I find it somewhat ironic that while some software freedom advocates are demonising open core they are also promoting David Wiley’s excellent recent post calling for more tolerance of others.
With that in mind, I will leave the last word on this matter to David:
“If someone has gone out of their way to waive some of the rights guaranteed them under the law so that they can share their creative works – even if that action is to apply a relatively restrictive CC BY-NC-ND to their content – why aren’t we praising that? Why aren’t we encouraging and cultivating and nurturing that? Why are we instead decreeing from a pretended throne on high, “Your licensing decision has been weighed in the balance, and has been found wanting. You are not deemed worthy.” Why the condescension? Why the closed-mindedness? Why the race to create machinery like definitions that give us the self-assumed authority to tell someone their sharing isn’t good enough? Why isn’t the open crowd more open-minded?”
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