Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What is an open source company? Part Two.

The controversy over what is an open source company won’t go away. The Gartner Group is preparing a full research report that claims SugarCRM, Zimbra, Mule Source, and several other companies are not living up to the Open Source Definition (OSD) and therefore are not true open source companies.

Some of the contentions in this report have already been previewed in the press, and some of the findings have been published before by Gartner's Mark Driver. Further, the forthcoming report will indicate that these companies are using the phrase “open source software” for marketing purposes and are not truly open source companies.

The allegations made by Gartner against SugarCRM are simple: SugarCRM does not have an OSI approved license and does not correspond to the OSD.

For his part, Roberts asserts that OSI licensure would harm SugarCRM's business. He adds that the OSI itself is dysfunctional and should not be the arbiter of what is open source. Still, in a recent interview, he explicitly denied that SugarCRM violates the letter of the OSD:

SugarCRM has always believed that Sugar Open Source is compliant with the OSD [Open Source Definition]. Specifically, Sugar Open Source includes the full source code, is modifiable, is redistributable and is patent-free.

This makes me think that Roberts has failed to understand the rationale behind the OSD.

Let me say here that I happen to agree with Roberts that the OSI is dysfunctional and has done a terrible job of managing this controversy. Like him, I am very disappointed to see what has happened with an organization that was founded to expand the use, and maintain the quality and growth of, free and open source software (FOSS). But that is no reason for SugarCRM to ignore or depreciate the role OSI plays — in particular the OSI’s function to pass licenses through the sieve of the OSD to determine if they comply.

Apparently, the SugarCRM license does not comply with the OSD. It is not sufficient to say that software is "full source code, modifiable, redistributable and patent-free," particularly when the company doesn't really mean "modifiable" in the way the OSD requires it, or "reciprocal" as the open source community understands to be. (For example, developers cannot modify the welcome or splash screen to take off unnecessary and unwanted messages.) There are OSI-approved licenses that can solve Sugar’s problem, and language can be added to address the company’s attribution problem. It seems that Roberts has rejected this compromise. He wants his license approved, so the controversy persists.

I think it is appropriate for important business reasons to discriminate against certain types of commercial uses of software, but this is where Gartner has it all wrong. There is nothing wrong with commerce for commerce's sake. The GNU/GPL, OSI, and the open source community recognize and explicitly do not prohibit it. But SugarCRM’s attribution controversy should not be solved by changing the OSD — Sugar should accommodate the OSD and submit their license for OSI approval.

SugarCRM and the other software vendors “on the bubble” should work with the OSI directly, or through their attorneys, both to fine-tune their own licenses and evolve the OSI. The Gartner report controversy just reinforces my belief that the OSI needs to adopt the new realities of commercial ventures in the open source community.

Finally, I think that a new terminology is needed, one that acknowledges a vendors’ use of a community software development methodology, but not necessarily "open source" (as defined by the OSI) software development. Maybe Gartner can help here — after all, this is their job.

My response to allegations about SugarCRM and similar companies is a simple analogy about membership in Red Sox Nation. Some Red Sox fans do not consider me a true fan and member of the Nation. After all, I do not attend many games, watch very few games on TV, only occasionally read articles about the Sox and don’t really follow the stats — all of these are unpardonable sins to some of the Fenway faithful. They consider me a closet Yankees fan because I respect the Bronx Bombers as a business. Nevertheless, I am a Red Sox fan and a proud member of the Red Sox Nation, which is a tough community to operate in or be seen as a member of.

In a similar way, SugarCRM, Zimbra, Mule Source, and several other companies should be embraced as open source companies and members of the open source community. They, like me, think that the open source community is a big tent, taking in all kinds of companies and software developers.

We all must remember that times change, and human organizations — both SugarCRM and OSI — have to adjust with the times.

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