Open-source boycott

Posted by: Steve Hamm on February 25, 2005

Typically the hardcore proponents of open source software and their allies in the commercial software realm get along just fine. Look at how swimmingly Linux is going. But a flare-up this week shows that their interests aren’t always 100% aligned. And that can lead to some nasty arguments, and some negative consequences.

I’m talking about the protest letter sent to the OASIS tech standards group by 29 of the open-source movement’s luminaries—including Lawrence Rosen, Bruce Perens, Lawrence Lessig, Richard Stallman, Mitch Kapor, and Eric Raymond. Linus Torvalds must have been on vacation.

Their complaint was that OASIS has proposed new by-laws that would encourage the use of royalty-bearing patents in standards it promulgates. They urged all true open-sourcers to boycott OASIS committees working on such standards, and to avoid using the standards when they’re released. "We insist on a royalty-free policy for open standards," says Rosen, a partner in the law firm of Rosenlaw & Einschlag and former general counsel for the Open Source Initiative. "It subjects our software to punitive royalty payments. We don’t charge for copies, so there’s no way we can cover it."

Here's an essay by Perens on the topic.

The OASIS people say it has all been a misunderstanding. The new patent policy, replacing one put into place in 2000, was intended to clarify the group's stand on patents and royalties—not change it substantively. They insist that they don't favor royalty-bearing patents over the royalty-free option. "Royalty-free work has been going on and is encouraged," says Jim Hughes, chairman of the OASIS board and director of software standards at Hewlett-Packard—one of the most aggressive commercial backers of open-source software.

The debate matters because OASIS is the main standards body for Web services, including XML. This stuff is being built into the foundation of business-to-business e-commerce. If the open-source people steer clear of some key OASIS standards because they specify using royalty-bearing patented technology, that's an impediment to both Web-services and open-source software adoption.

There's hope for a truce, and maybe a compromise. The two sides say they plan on talking things over in depth next week. Let's hope they make up.

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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