Recently, our readers may have likely heard about a nebulous study from the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute on open source-- and as has been more mentioned particularly, although I'd like to stress that it's important not to miss the point by focusing on a single point, the allegation that Linux is legally a derivative of Minix. We were able to obtain a review copy of the forthcoming paper and I will be able to report on the merits of the points brought up by it. I also understand that my editor will be posting an opinion article on it soon.
By the way, there have been allegations of sneaky fingers-in-pies style manipulation between AdTI and Microsoft in regards to this paper. After reading it myself I found that this is not very likely. The most possible linkage that I could ever estimate is that somehow it was Microsoft funding or Microsoft's prominence in the market that lead to the inspiration for this paper. But that is of course contrived. In any case I would tend to take Brown's statement in other press recently that what he wrote were his own thoughts basically at face value.
However, I'd like to note that the behaviour of the Institute in regards to pre-release press is somewhat shameful, inasmuch as the scandalising headlines: "Torvalds claim to 'invent' Linux probably false, says new study." On the contrary, though this is a claim of the paper, it is not a central thesis and I can only imagine that it was spun up this way to attract media attention (which it certainly has).
This is part one in a series of articles to appear on Cynicism Personified on the Samizdat study.
The Samizdat paper opens with some interesting parables and a foreword about the era of Samizdat, the paper's namesake period in Russian history in the Soviet era when freedom fighters would copy and distribute dissident materials against the will of the state censorship apparatus. It's an interesting analogy that gains relevance. In the first place the paper opens up discussing the idea of three spheres of source code control: Proprietary, True Open Source, and Hybrid. Brown classes academic style licenses like the Apache and BSD licenses as truly open, while suggesting that GPL style licenses which have the very interesting Pandora's box property of allowing derivatives but placing restrictions (compare to the truly open that flatly allow derivatives, and to the proprietary which flatly deny the right to create them) are "Hybrid" licenses.
This seems a reasonable term. It goes on to define it economically. This is the very thesis of the paper, the economic impact of open source. Brown states, "Mandated openness ends an individual’s ability to leverage its scarcity. Simply put, mandated openness, eliminates value because in essence everybody can have it." This is the fundamental basis of the paper and to understand it you must understand this.
Brown's specific idea and problem with Hybrid License is that it does mandate openness, wanted or not, and causes any contributed code to be 'valueless.' This is the foundation for which the work is based on and I am sorry to report that the foundation is rotten. It's a good point that Hybrid prevents commercial exploitation of software that is Hybrid licensed, after all this is precisely the point and idea.
Suppose you write a program and want to make it open for anyone to enjoy. If you use a traditional open license, you may worry that a company will appear, take your hard work that you intended to be useful for everyone, and then sell it and make money off of it. However if you place your code under the GPL you prevent this, legally enforcing your standard academic atmosphere of any new discoveries and developments on the program being contributed back to the public. This seems reasonable.
The thesis of this paper however is that the problem is that this prevents the great economic benefit of commercial exploitation of the source code and software under Hybrid licensing, and effectively destroys value that was there before. The problem is in the assumptions. In the first place, Hybrid based commercial software has been a proven business, as Brown notes in a different context for such companies as Redhat. Therefore there isn't a real world basis for the idea that Hybrid licensed code cannot be used for commercial exploitation.
More fundamentally, much stock is placed in the idea of fundamental value of the source. If anyone can have it, then it is worthless because it is not scarce. But this is flawed thinking based on material economics where scarcity can never be escaped. On the contrary, there can still be much value. Suppose I build an open source car, called the Pinto. It's magickal, so I can make it replicate itself infinitely. It is not scarce. And I license it legally so that no one can ever remove the magick from it, allowing them to modify it and then sell it copy by copy.
In this world no one could profit from selling Pintos. But many people could benefit from using it. Because it is not scarce so to speak, there is not value in selling Linux, as is. But even so, even if it were only distributed completely freely, it would still create value in the economy. Just ask anyone that is using Linux as an operating system and saving money by lessening security and other problems as well as initial purchase cost, and increasing configurability, among other alleged benefits of Linux. Brown completely forgets that source code is not just property, chunks of things that have some sort of inherent value.
If there is a value it is because there is a utility, and the highest value of software is found not in the money that is transferred away and lost by consumers, personal and corporate, that drains the public treasuries and the company accounts destined for the ledgers of the hard-working software houses. Cars are not valuable because Detroit makes money off of them. Cars are valuable because they take us places. Our economy is helped by the impetus that the automobile industry gives us, but to put it above the very source and reason for value in a product is folly and sadly the Samizdat commits this folly. You don't buy junk. If software has value it is not because someone can charge you for it. It is because people find it very useful and need it. The problem is that once your basic thesis is flawed, not many good points can be salvaged from the rest. That said, the paper contains many interesting and provocative thoughts and pieces of research which we'll examine in our next article.
In the meantime, read the upcoming opinion piece by our editor, which being such I expect to be fairly opinionated.Posted by galdosd at May 25, 2004 09:14 AM