Is Open Source under Siege? Let's Hope Not!
While Open Source is stepping up in leading innovation of software technology, things could very well start to get even harder than they are in the near future to gain further market share for true Free Software.
In the last months, Oracle has stepped away from the open software community, focusing more on short-term monetizing of the open source products they have acquired from Sun Microsystems. There are speculations that Red Hat might have sold out the wider Open Source community in favor of its own customers in a sealed patent infringement settlement, which might have a similar effect as Novell's deal with Microsoft which has let to calls to boycott Novell.
Now, Novell has been acquired by Attachmate, apparently backed by Microsoft, with the side-effect that at least 882 of Novell's patents will be transferred to a Microsoft backed consortium.
What does this all mean for the individual Open Source contributor?
Certainly, these are not good news for individual open source contributors, and consumers of Open Source. And it reiterates the importance of individual software contributors to protect themselves.
In particular, this should make individual open source contributors be vary of technologies which might be attached to certain risks due to patents being asserted. Individual contributors should weight their options very carefully, in particular for long-term consequences.
Community Promises like the one from Microsoft in regard of for example Mono need to be re-evaluated. Instead of granting a licence to use the patented technology, it only extends a promise not to be sued for patent-infringement, nevertheless, it still remains patent-infringement to use such technology as Mono as long as it is assumed that such patents will be confirmed to be valid by a court of law.
On the other hand, it also re-iterates the problem with copyright assignments. When individual contributors donate their works in such way to another entity, often they not only lose or restrict their own rights in relation to their own work, it is also possible for those entities to later add non-open parts to those works and discontinue the support of the open source parts of it. While most of the time, it is possible to cerate a fork like in the case of LibreOffice, it still puts the recipient of the copyright assignment in a far stronger position than the author of the created work. A strong community might not exist and first has to be developed, hence there is a disadvantage in the time-to-market competition of such a fork.
While the arguments of organisations that put a lot of resources into a particular project are understandable, the issue of copyright assignment seem to create another schism inside the open source community between projects that are strongly based in a broad community, which allow the creators to keep their rights, and projects that are based within a particular organisation, with most of the project being created through work by hire which has automatic copyright assignment and a minority of the project being donated by individual contributors through copyright assignment, hence dividing the community in paid and non-paid individuals.
It is not clear how this schism will affect the future of open source projects, and the community at large. It very well may be that different situations will require different solutions, and hence there will be friendly co-existence of different models side-by-side. However, taking the knowledge of history into account, it stands to be reasonable to fear that it will lead to more factionalism and tribalism.
Unfortunately, it seems that it more and more, at least short and medium term, the embracing of open source by the economy leads to change open source for the needs of greed and profits, instead of allowing the ideas of open source to change the economy and society. Let's hope that these unfortunate changes at this time are a form of last stance against inevitable progress and open source and its principles will come out stronger to the benefit of all of society in the long run.