The state of open source: Missteps and lessons learned

What leaders from the open source community say have been the greatest missteps or lessons learned

11 leaders from the open source and vendor communities discuss the current open source climate and outline the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Open source now enjoys a rich and complex history, which is largely the result of trial and error over the years. What would you say have been the open source community's greatest missteps, or lessons learned?

Bruce Perens: Creator of the Open Source Definition and Co-founder of the Open Source Initiative

It's a lot easier to talk about missteps of a single company or a single project. The open source community is like an entire economy of software developers or an entire software industry. No real industry has central leadership, it's made up of separate players going their own ways. That makes it much more robust than a single company could ever be.

I see the biggest mistakes as happening in law rather than technology, because they're the ones that are the hardest to fix. Some of them are in courts, others in legislatures. IBM brought the lawsuit that made software patenting legal in the United States. The US patent office actually prohibited software patenting before then. Reversing that prohibition was a big mistake for the entire software industry and the US economy. State Street Bank did the same thing for business-method patents. The US passed DMCA as law, and has pushed it on other countries, and that's very anti-customer and connected with the misguided war on the customer being waged by the music industry. Those are the mistakes I'd fix, if I could.

Matt Asay: Vice president of business development Alfresco

Lesson No. 1: Intellectual property matters. By this I don't mean that the open source world is dismissive of IP claims. Far from it -- we absolutely rely on the integrity of IP in order to thrive.

No, what I mean is that in the open source community, we've been so intent on changing the world and how it buys IP that we've forgotten just how threatening this can be to the incumbent vendors. They've started to sharpen their knives (witness all of Microsoft's FUD), and the counterinsurgency is becoming ever-more sophisticated. Good code alone won't win this fight.

Eric S. Raymond: Programmer, author, and open source software advocate

We made our biggest misstep back around 1985, by letting our advocacy function get almost completely captured by the Free Software Foundation. On a purely technical level, open source could have become an effective movement any time after inexpensive 32-bit PCs became available around 1987. As it was, we lost 10 years because our theory was weak and politically tainted, our community fragmented, and our propaganda ludicrously inept.

To be fair, neither I nor anybody else wanted the advocacy job at the time. But it's notable that open source didn't break out of its hardcore-geek ghetto until Linus Torvalds and I found a better story to tell about it after 1997. Did you know that the Mayans invented the wheel but only used it for children's toys? Narratives really matter; open source wasn't the first technology to languish at the margins because it hadn't found the right generative myth yet, and it's unlikely to be the last.

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