Asay: Could Cash Replace Code as an Open Source Contribution?

Ken-Hardin

Whenever I finish an interview, I always am embarrassed by the one obvious follow-up question I didn't ask.

 

Shortly after I hosted a conference call last Thursday on the GPL v3 draft process, I smacked myself in the forehead for not following up on this comment by Matt Asay:

"I would argue that it's true that giving the Web properties a free ride encouraged them to get started on a dime rather than a dollar; I'm not sure I'd go so far to say that Google would be out of business or never would have gotten off the ground if it had paid more than $69.99 to Red Hat ..."

Asay was discussing the prospects of closing down the "ASP Loophole" in the GPL, which now is alive and well in the v3 draft but, call participants generally agreed, is still in the cross hairs of the open source community as a general shortcoming in OSS licensing. Google is often cited as a likely source of pressure on the Free Software Foundation -- which administers the GPL -- that caused it to drop provisions in v3 to force services companies that modify open source code to open up that modified code, even if they don't re-distribute the software directly.

 

My question to Asay should have been:

"But Google isn't in the business of not going out of business, right? It's in the business of putting other folks out of business."

That's overly Darwinian, or maybe Patton-esque, come to think of it. But the reality is that businesses are not communal; they can cooperate with each other, but that's typically only in times when there seems to be plenty of revenue to go around, and even then allegiances posture themselves against other businesses.

 

This has always seemed to me to be the ultimate conundrum of how open source -- I mean the fervent, no-software-patents kind of open source the FSF started out the v3 draft process with -- will mesh with business, which is far better described as an ecosystem (think Whiskers v. Lazuli) than a community.


 

I'm even more upset that I didn't ask that question, because Asay had an interesting answer that he volunteered as a concept later in the call (fat lot of value I added). He suggested that in a future licensing scheme, companies that employ open source code internally could elect to contribute cash instead of open code.

 

Obviously, details on how this cash contribution might be metered or accomplished are unclear -- some might argue that Google is already making a pretty big cash contribution to open source by encouraging its developers to work on side projects while they are on the G-clock -- but Asay's general suggestion caught my interest, as well as that of Rob Enderle, who commented on the call today in his blog. (The hour-long podcast of the call is definitely worth a listen.)

 

Seems to me that businesses, particularly SaaS vendors who have benefited enormously from the ASP loophole, would be far more inclined to spend money than to open up code that they considered to be strategically important. If every smart piece of development in, say, the CRM SaaS space, were to be opened up, you'd end up with a sector driven by marketing spend, which ultimately is good for nobody -- certainly not customers.

 

Of course, there are a ton of questions that would have to be answered before a cash contribution model would be viable. How many mod generations back would the cash contribution need to go? Would companies be able to agree to a percentage of future revenues as opposed to up-front outlays, to encourage vigorous open source adoption in niche SaaS sectors? All kind of annoying business stuff.

 

But clearly these are the kinds of answers open source vendors need to find if they intend to participate in the SaaS boom many of them are driving.



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Jun 27, 2007 8:30 AM Jose Jose  says:
>> Seems to me that businesses, particularly SaaS vendors who have benefited enormously from the ASP loophole, would be far more inclined to spend money than to open up code that they considered to be strategically important.This depends. If the cost was one billion dollars, they might opt to go open.Also, this option of paying to keep things closed when the FLOSS license doesn't allow it already exists. The buyer has to go to the owner of the copyrights and negotiate a separate license. This isn't always practical or possible, but many times it is (eg, Mysql). Certainly something to consider for those that expect to use GPL4(?) code and keep it closed.>> If every smart piece of development in, say, the CRM SaaS space, were to be opened up, you'd end up with a sector driven by marketing spend, which ultimately is good for nobody -- certainly not customers.Many would disagree. It's clear that quality code can come about through open processes, so the incentive to produce good code that does most of the heavy lifting to solve customers' problems will continue to exist. It is crazy to think that no one will be willing to implement the last mile knowing others will copy. It's the difference between zero or something. The questionable point is if one or more of those that can come up with very good implementations (or the person that can come up with the best implementation) will be motivated to do so. [I won't try to answer this. It would depend anyway on a case by case basis. The fact is that some people would never put their best work for a proprietary company (even if they had the freedom to do so; many times they don't because of non-technical constraints; even if they were paid a lot of money) but would for FLOSS work. So would those most likely to produce the best implementation in a particular instance fall into this group or the group that would do their best when paid the most money regardless of other factors?] ..And once a great implementation is out there, you have to expect others will copy. The end consumer will benefit through better value. [This is also debateable. Since continuity of vendor/client relationships is valuable, if vendors go out of business quickly, the value is diminished. Then again, other market gains may make up for this.] Every company won't go out of business. There are ways to add value besides marketing. Certainly, it might keep companies from being as large as the current Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, but then more other companies are likely to benefit with more of the market up for grabs. There will be innovation and growth in other areas as companies spot opportunities to get ahead. The consumer will benefit. In fact, all else being equal, improvements in marketing may not benefit the customer but they certainly may.As usual though, those that can't get enough will look for new barriers to put up to limit competition (energy and resources that are not being spent to benefit the customer, but rather to eliminate competition so that the customers can ultimately be charged more for less).In any case, there are ways to legally mix closed code with open code (even with GPL3/Affero). The requirements basically are that you can hide details within the closed portion, but interfaces must be open so that it can talk to the open code it works with. The idea that a tougher GPL will mean that *no* benefit could be gotten from the GPL code while keeping secret sauces is faulty. Reply

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