Friday, April 27, 2007

Ready or Not, You've Got Open Source

Bill and I spent Monday this week at the Linux on Wall Street conference in New York City (right after the ASJA conference, where we presented on technology writing).

What was fascinating was that all the sessions were about one thing: the legality of using open source software, such as Linux--but there are also many others, in widespread use. They talked about things like the "beer license" (in which a developer wrote a license that anyone could use his software for free but anyone doing so who encountered him in a bar was obliged to buy him a beer). Yeah, I love the idea too, but you can see why it might give your average corporate legal department conniptions.

Anyhow, the message of the conference was that companies need a policy governing how they use open source software, and I agree. For one thing, the copyleft provisions that govern much open source require that anyone who programs a modification to open source code and plans to distribute the modifications beyond a specific company must also give away that source to the open source community at large. It's the kind of thing where a company can very easily get on the wrong side of the law, and a setup for a classic Geek Gap-style conflict.

I might have guessed some lawsuit-shy companies would respond by banning open source altogether, but no: the economic and other benefits of using it are just too powerful. And therein lies the challenge: what's a right-minded but cautious company to do?

Another surprising thing I learned at the conference: many companies may be using open source and not even know it. Well, think about it, do most CEOs or even CIOs know precisely what their coders are writing or how they're being used? Do they know for sure there are no open source components in the software they buy?

Open source was created by geeks, with totally geekish values in mind: Share the technology, screw the money, let's make everything work as well as it possibly can.

If open source is now sneaking its way into much of Corporate America, then suits will have to learn to deal with it, and the principles it represents. And from where I sit, that sounds like a good thing.