Volunteer hackers still play an important role in open-source software development despite the many companies that pay developers to work on open-source products, according to Michael Tiemann, Red Hat’s vice president of open-source affairs.
Tiemann, who is also president and a member of the board at the Open Source Initiative, a nonprofit organization that promotes open-source software, was in India last week to address a symposium on the impact of intellectual property laws on innovation and progress. In a telephone interview from Delhi, Tiemann talked to IDG News Service on a wide range of issues relating to the open-source movement. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
IDG: There is a perception that the hacker culture is disappearing from open-source development, as a result of corporate participation and corporate priorities in open-source development.
Tiemann: The hacker community has always been doing its work from the margins. That does not mean that it wasn’t important in the past, and it does not mean it won’t be important in the future. But it remains non-mainstream. At the same time, the commercial community has benefited tremendously from rebellious hackers. When a hacker points out that a particular protocol has great security weaknesses, the commercial community who pays attention to that is better for it. The commercial community who attempts to cover it up, or deny it, ultimately puts more people at risk.
IDG: Is there something that the OSI can do to make hackers feel more comfortable in the changed open-source environment, where large companies like IBM have deployed employees paid to do open-source development?
Tiemann: The fact that IBM has a large team doing open-source development is great, and many of the people doing that work for IBM are hackers. They are renegades that just happen to get their paychecks from IBM. Of course there are some very conventional people who are also getting paychecks, and I don’t think it makes it any worse.
I think the reason why open source has not been corrupted by capital is because capital is almost irrelevant to open source. If you look at an industry like the railroad, before a single unit of value can be delivered you need immense capital to build the railroad bed, and to build the trains and the stations. In the case of software, value can be delivered on a highly incremental basis. So the most important thing in software is not financial capital, but intellectual capital.
When you look at open-source development from the perspective of intellectual capital, there is no company on Earth whose financial capital can be remotely relevant to the intellectual capital potential of the world. The investment by IBM and other companies [in intellectual capital] is such a small drop in the bucket. That is why it has not corrupted, and cannot corrupt, open source.
IDG: Once large commercial interests get involved in open source, isn’t there a risk of their creating barriers to entry and forking, for example?
Tiemann: There are two issues here. One of the great goals of both open source and free software is to ensure that whatever barriers exist are not sufficient to stop an individual developer from making an individual contribution, and being able to improve the software. That is how I got into this, and I believe that the GPL [GNU general public license] version 2 and the GPL version 3 both provide that exact kind of protection.
As far as forking is concerned, forking is a freedom that ensures a robust democracy, when developer A can basically say I no longer trust developer B and I am going in my own direction. That freedom to fork is the democratic process being realized. In open source, people can choose how they want to participate, whether it’s the selection of license or the selection of code branches. And we won’t lose that freedom.
IDG: What is your view on the new version of GPL, GPL version 3, that the Free Software Foundation [FSF] is promoting?
Tiemann: From a Red Hat perspective, we are participating on the GPL discussion panels. We have representation in both the community and legal panels. We are going through the process that the FSF has put forward, and I think they are very aware of our comments on both perspectives. As president of the OSI, I am interested in seeing the discussion of the open-source community about the GPL, to inform us whether or not we should adopt the GPL version 3 as an open source license that meets the OSD [open source definition] criteria.
As an open-source community member, and not president of the OSI and not vice president for open source affairs at Red Hat, I personally would like to see the GPL 3 broadly adopted. I think that it is appropriate for people to recognize the importance of freedom in the future of software, and so I am personally interested in seeing that the GPL version 3 get a fair look from the community.
IDG: The debate over the GPL version 3 seems to reflect a divergence between the FSF and the open-source community on how they view software. The open-source community is talking more about efficiency and economical software when describing their model, while the FSF is emphasizing freedom in software development.
Tiemann: I think it is possible to live in both worlds. It is definitely true that there are some people who care about only one of those two worlds, but I think that those two worlds can coexist. I think people can be thinking about freedom and be thinking about commerce at the same time. So I don’t like to choose a side and say the other side is wrong.
IDG: What is Red Hat’s position on this?
Tiemann: I don’t think Red Hat as a company takes a position that one side of the divide is better or worse than the other. Red Hat believes fervently that the open-source development model is a superior way to build software, that it is a better way to build an economic engine for the 21st century. And we are committed to exemplifying the open-source business model so that others can follow our lead.
-John Ribeiro, IDG News Service (Bangalore Bureau)