Opinion: Shred that paper

An opinion is a funny thing. Two intelligent individuals can look at a set of facts and develop two very different opinions about the matter. As someone who writes about his opinions, I hear from reasonable people with differing opinions every week. As the saying goes, it's all good.

What annoys me, however, is a professionally written opinion that seems to ignore more facts than it acknowledges. Such is the case with a curious work titled "Opening the Open Source Debate," issued by a think tank called the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution in Washington.

The paper presents the strangest opinion about open source that I have read in years. In the late 1990s it was not unusual to read reports about open source written by analysts who clearly did not have a good grasp on either the community dynamics or business issues that surround the subject. By 2000, however, more informed analyses became the norm.

But this new white paper is a flashback to the bad old days. It contains many deficiencies -- more than this short column can address.

For example, in the section titled "The Myth of a 'Public Software' Community," the author bluntly declares that open source is the place where techies play with concepts until they find a way to make money and then abandon it to pursue closed-source alternatives. Author Kenneth Brown states, "One could joke that open source has been a bridesmaid but never a bride."

Never a bride? The paper ignores the fact that a huge portion of the Internet is powered by open-source technologies such as Apache, Sendmail, and PHP (Hypertext Preprocessor) -- the most widely used server-side scripting language on the Web, surpassing Active Server Pages, according to Netcraft. And there is no recognition that the main competitor to Windows these days is Linux -- built by the very community the author declares as "mythical."

I don't doubt that there are myths in this report, but they are not what Mr. Brown contends. The report itself seems more mythical than any of its supposed "facts."

The report also states, "The GPL [General Public License] is one of the most uniquely restrictive product agreements in the technology industry." Please. Users can employ GPL programs on as many machines as they want, whenever they want. Try that with your average proprietary product, and you will quickly hear BSA (Business Software Alliance) auditors knocking at your door.

Yes, programmers who insert GPL code into their programs will need to put their programs under the GPL. But programmers who insert someone else's proprietary source code into their programs risk legal action because they have no right to see, let alone use, someone else's closed proprietary code. That sounds a bit more "restrictive" to me.

If you are looking for a good white paper about open source, I suggest looking elsewhere. "Opening the Open Source Debate" just is not it.