|Subject: [hangout] OSS and Inovation
Why Open Source Stifles Innovation
By Peter Passell
Open Source Software: It?s Not Just a Good Idea, It?s the Law! No, you
won?t be seeing those words on bumper stickers anytime soon. But little
by little, lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians are becoming very
interested in open source, and they aren?t likely to leave its fate to
market forces. What began as a grass-roots programmer rebellion against
commercial software is rapidly evolving into a political struggle that
could retard innovation and balkanize the software market.
Software that costs nothing to license and comes with the underlying
source code available for all to see has penetrated the mainstream.
Companies as varied as Boeing, Amazon, Google, and E-Trade are using
the open source operating system Linux. Two other open source programs,
Apache (for hosting Web sites) and Sendmail (for routing e-mail), are
This success has been good news for businesses, since it?s forcing
commercial software makers to price low. But the future of open source
is clouded by ideology and politics.
The copyright holders of open source software ? typically nonprofits
controlled by the principal developers ? have broad discretion to set
the terms for its use. And most are choosing to distribute under what
is called the General Public License (GPL).
Anyone is free to use GPL software (like Linux) at no charge, and is
equally free to modify it. But new software that incorporates strands
of code from GPL software must also be distributed under the GPL. This
makes it impractical to integrate ideas from GPL software in
proprietary software because anyone would be free to copy the
The ?viral? quality of GPL software is intentional: Proponents happily
acknowledge that the goal is to undermine incentives to create software
that carries a price tag. But for those of us without ideological
qualms about software as private property, the wall that GPL erects
between open source and proprietary software seems unfortunate.
It is especially unfortunate when government builds the walls. The U.S.
government has long been a font of research in software that has made
the leap to commercial products. But in the absence of a formal policy,
some federal software is being released under the GPL. In fact, NASA,
the Sandia National Laboratories, and the U.S. Department of Defense
have all distributed code with GPL restrictions.
It is hard to assay the damage in terms of duplicated effort or advances
in commercial software that will never be made. But the analogy to
another technology-driven industry does hammer home the point: If
federal research in medicine had been distributed under some equivalent
of the GPL, the spectacular burst of innovation in drugs and genetic
engineering by private enterprise in the last decade would have been
The distribution of GPL software by the government is largely
inadvertent. But outside the U.S., resentment of American dominance of
software neatly dovetails with concerns about the superpower?s
disproportionate influence over high technology and foreign
government?s tendency to favor domestic software producers.
The German government has funded private German efforts to develop
security software to be licensed under an equivalent to the GPL. In
China, the People?s Daily newspaper reported that government agencies
would ?join forces to encourage strengthening of the nation?s software
industry in a bid to pry the computer industry from the grip? of
foreign commercial software companies. And Taiwan has launched an
ambitious initiative to wean computers from Windows, funding R&D in
open source software and training tens of thousands of workers in
The growing involvement of government in open source is most immediately
the concern of the proprietary software industry. Microsoft has the
most to lose because Windows sits at the top of the software food
chain. But integrated hardware/software companies like IBM, which are
supporting open source, could also lose as they sacrifice high-margin
software licensing for scraps from the open source table.
Businesses have a stake here, too. It certainly makes sense for firms to
compare the life-cycle cost of open source and proprietary software in
their procurement decisions. But government-led success of open source
could undermine the network economies that have driven some software
market niches toward winner-take-most outcomes.
Thus, while firms may find that the advantages of using free software
outweigh the disadvantages, they have not yet had to confront the
headaches of a world in which they must worry about the compatibility
of files produced on different software platforms or about the need to
train employees to use applications for multiple platforms.
The success of open source could also retard innovation. As noted
earlier, GPL software cannot be integrated into proprietary software.
By the same token, an attenuated market for proprietary software would
reduce private incentives to invest in software development.
Open source is here to stay. But whether it will, in the end, prove a
boon to global productivity depends on how the competition with
commercial software plays out as commerce mixes with ideology,
nationalism, and special-interest politics.
The bottom line for business: Enjoy something for nothing, but be wary
of ideologues who would restrict your diet to free lunches.
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