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Leeches or Users? Should Enterprise IT Have to Give Back to FOSS?

Leeches or Users? Should Enterprise IT Have to Give Back to FOSS?

Does the FOSS philosophy imply a moral imperative for companies that use open source tools to give back to the community? There's no legal requirement for them to do so, but that makes them "parasites" or "leeches" in the eyes of some developers. "Whining because companies are not doing more than the license requires is just stupid," argues Montreal blogger Gerhard Mack.

By Katherine Noyes
06/11/09 4:00 AM PT

When an enterprise adopts open source software, that's generally cause for celebration in the eyes of most Linux fans, signifying as it does another victory for all that is FOSS.

Not everyone sees it that way, however, as a recent debate on the Linux blogs made patently clear.

"Eclipse is open source and companies can take advantage of the open source work. There is nothing legally that can prevent them from doing so," wrote Michael Scharf, a member of the Eclipse Foundation's architecture council, in a post back in April. "But the eclipse community should create peer pressure to prevent the freeloaders and parasites from getting away without punishment."

Alternatively, "leeches" was the term applied to such users in an InfoWorld article that put the spotlight on the topic just last week.

The result? You guessed it: a virtual feeding frenzy of comments, criticisms and conversation.

'I Call Them Users'

"You might call them parasites; I call them users and adopters," Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, told InfoWorld.

In fact, whether or not enterprise users give anything back to the community, they still create a market for Eclipse plug-ins and services, Milinkovich added.

Similarly, "small companies that use open source software" -- though they may be too small to make significant contributions -- "are giving back by employing those who administer this software," noted Hatta on Slashdot, where the debate generated more than 300 comments.

'Microsoft Requires Contributions'

"They're also giving back by submitting bug reports and helping devs find problems in the software," added Dan Ost. "They might also help others solve problems in mailing lists and forums.

"Most users that give back give back in the same way. Why should we hold small companies to a higher standard?" Dan Ost added.

"Microsoft requires contributions ... of money," nitehawk214 pointed out. "Small companies that can't help develop OSS would simply be forced back to the traditional pay-for software."

So what's it going to be? Does FOSS's zero cost oblige the corporate user to contribute something, monetary or otherwise, toward its development? Is FOSS being harmed by enterprise users that give nothing back? LinuxInsider's trusty blog reporter took to the streets of the blogosphere to find out.

'That Is Just Misinformed'

"This whole article is a troll," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. "I noticed they singled out Google as a leech/former leech, and that is just misinformed. In my experience, Google has been very good at sending patches and feedback to upstream open source maintainers."

There are companies that "haven't gotten the point yet," Mack added, "but developers cannot demand anything other than what their license requires."

If users aren't doing what the license requires, "that's what the courts are for, but whining because companies are not doing more than the license requires is just stupid," he concluded.

'Use a License That Requires It'

Indeed, "so far there have been few continual offenders when it comes to 'borrowing' Linux," Slashdot blogger drinkypoo agreed via email. "While offensive examples of Tivoization -- which flaunts the letter of the GPL against its spirit -- crop up here and there, in most cases when a vendor fails to comply with the GPL at all they eventually come around."

Cisco's Linksys subsidiary "could be characterized as a leech," but it is making efforts to come into compliance, drinkypoo told LinuxInsider.

Meanwhile, regarding Scharf's complaints, the Eclipse Public License "provides for this," drinkypoo added. "It seems to me that if you want to force people to contribute back, an idea for which I have a great deal of sympathy, you're going to have to use a license that requires it."

'Fewer Than 5 Percent Pay Me'

Similarly, "if you want to force folks to give back for mere use, don't license your software under open source software licenses," Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, told LinuxInsider. "Really, it is as simple as that."

Instead, "folks need to concentrate on how to leverage services to monetize their efforts and expertise," he explained.

Travers builds business software, such as LedgerSMB, under open source licenses.

"Most folks who download the software will use it for free or will pay some third-party developer to make customizations; I am guessing that fewer than 5 percent of the users actually pay me for anything," he asserted.

'This Is How I Make My Living'

"Not only am I happy with that -- I actually go out of my way to make the product supportable by others, and try to ensure folks don't need to pay unnecessarily," Travers said. "This is how I make my living."

The more nonpaying users of the software there are, the more opportunities there are for services that help businesses extract more business value from the tools, Travers added. "Nonpaying users are therefore an important resource to developers in the open source community, and often become paying customers of other services.

"If the software already does everything everyone needs, then it doesn't need further development," he pointed out. "If it needs further development, then it is reasonable to expect that someone is going to pay somebody to get that done. That is the real way enterprise users can give back -- but only when they need to."

'Giving Back All the Time'

In fact, big IT "is giving back to FLOSS all the time," blogger Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider. "They employ many of the best, brightest and most-experienced FLOSS developers and contribute to many projects code, manpower and money."

There are "quite a few stories about the big guys adopting FLOSS and -- in lieu of paying huge licensing fees -- they contribute a modest but valuable amount in terms of developers," Pogson added.

Sun, for example, "did that with StarOffice/OpenOffice," he noted. "It was far less costly that way.

"Now that GNU/Linux is making a big move on the desktop," he concluded, "it is natural that large users of IT want the advantages of FLOSS and make some contribution to see that their needs are met."


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