Open Source Conference: Day 1

It’s the collaborative development of software through peer-review. It’s a constitutional right that will beckon a new age of civil liberty. It’s a business model for making great, cheap programs. It’s a disruptive economic factor that will level the playing field in the software market, a market currently dominated by monopolies.

These are some of the opinions given at the Open Source Conference at the University of Toronto on May 9-11. In a three-day schedule, speakers discussed open source software’s social, legal, business and technological implications.

Not Just for Nerds

The attendees at this conference were technically very savvy. Many had Wi-Fi enabled devices. The teenager in front of me was reading Slashdot on Firefox while running Eclipse. Another man was using Microsoft OneNote and MindManager. (I chatted with him briefly, it turns out he’s working on his Ph.D. thesis, which is an Outlook add-on that intelligently organizes your email). Who’s here: Bell University Labs, IBM, Government of Canada, Sun Microsystems, Nortel Networks, and University of Ottawa. Most were also very passionate orators with multitudes of opinions themselves.

Romancing the Source

To understand open source, we must go back to the beginning. The term “open source” was coined in 1998, but thirty years ago, virtually all software was released into the public domain.

Brian Behldendorf co-founder of the Apache Web Server

Code development was an empirically-driven process, a meritocracy, or as he liked to call it, “100 Monkeys Meet Darwin” process. If you could program, you were accepted into the group.

Cites book Where Wizards Stay Up Late that describes the birth of TCP/IP and Internet:

  • cooperation to develop a spec
  • decentralization (Internet designed to survive attack on any node
  • Isenberg’s “dumb network” is rugged, reliable, and node-dependant
  • separates content from method of transport
  • interested in expanding network rather than commercializing it – parallels to US interstate system

PGP – possibly the first modern open-source application – was developed by Phil Zimmerman. He wasn’t interested in renumeration, it was “free”. The open source community wanted to use technology to address the social problems of the world.

Apache begun because:

  • pragmatism – developers joined forces to combine patches “like baseball cards”
  • idealism: ensure open HTTP protocol doesn’t become extinct
  • avoid having one company having control over web client and server (i.e. Netscape), because then they would control the network between them


  • chaotic feedback and patches
  • collective action, not death by committee
  • zero cost and right to fork

Can be applied to markets where proprietary software is unsuitable

  • developing countries (“China likes free software, we’ve been using free Microsoft software for some time.”)
  • addressing the digital divide (486s running Linux)
  • politics (DeanSpace, voting software)

One can be “doing well by doing right”: see Cygnus, Yahoo, CollabNet use hybrid strategy. Google’s 10,000 CPU Linux cluster would not be possible with proprietary software.

CS students see OSS

  • as a global university
  • recruiting tool; incentive to work for a particular organization

Rishab Aiyer Ghosh International Institute of Infonomics, University of Maastricht

Ghosh initiated the, who has done a survey on open source economics:

What do OSS developers wish to accomplish?

  • Share knowledge 78%
  • earn respect 32%
  • to write beautiful programs 24%

Why participate?

  • learn new skills 70%
  • share knowledge to improve product 67%
  • improve job opportunities 40%
  • make money

Software is a tool of freedom and empowerment, plus an economic enabler. Software is a proxy for knowledge, power and wealth. China developed their own version of Linux because they don’t want their IT infrastructure to be dependant on a US company. In Brazil, legitimate copies of Windows and Office cost as much as an average person’s salary for 2.5 months.
HTML and webpages are “open source” – no barrier to entry to becoming a web designer

Appeals to passive users vs. proactive users – ability to choose their level of creativity. Peru told Microsoft that they would never learn if they just used proprietary software.

Case study of Extramadura: It was the poorest region in Spain, but now it has widespread Internet access and technoliteracy. Thanks to Linux and OSS, there is access to everyone, and active participation, from everyone. Recipient of the 2004 European Regional Innovation Award.

Eben Moglen Ph.D Columbia Law School, Free Software Foundation

Background: working on the GNU GPL v. 3, which will address embedded OSS, among other things. Great forceful speaker, if somewhat rhetorical

Focus is on “freedom” – the obtaining and withholding of freedom. However, free software will define civil freedom in the 21st century. “Like racial segregation, no one will remember a time where people withheld technological freedom just to make someone rich.” They will forget a time where people were “selling human communication by the sip”.

“He who controls software controls life”

  • Already “the most sophisticated music system in the world is run by 12-year-olds”.
  • Already Microsoft will not be able to fight the competition through technical merit, and will revert to litigation and plain “frightening people”.

Software will be free, hardware will be cheap, and bandwidth must also be free to share. In thirty years, all voice and data will be freely available, as well as shared spectrum communications. The telco monopolists will be extinct.

“We won’t leave them to their own devices. We own their devices.”

The Lawyers Cometh

David McGowan University of Minnesota Law School

McGowan is neutral: “Go it husband, go it bear” – Abraham Lincoln
a self-professed “market droid” and “econo-dwarf” ala Stallman’s definition

  • points out the dangers of rhetoric from both sides
  • SCO’s assertion that the GPL is unconstitutional is “barking mad” but it appeals to the ethos of corporate America.
  • There will be overstatement to overstatement to qualified reply. And there is low signal to noise ratio. There is a danger of both sides obscuring the facts or overhyping themselves.
  1. What is the GPL? It is a unilateral permission to use code. It is not a contract. It is also conditional – there is a warranty disclaimer and support indemnification
  2. 72% of all projects use GPL, but perhaps not on merit, but as an expression or assocation to a brand. There is dilution: GPL is a license and a manifesto. Litigation is business as usual on the commercial space.
  3. Who’s GPL is it? The FSF’s. Control is relatively top-down.
  4. How many GPLs are there? It’s the sociology it sustains. He predicts more GPL clarifications (ie. mySQL)

“Listen to the droidish and dwarvish voices – there’s signal there too.”

Barry B. Sookman McCarthy Tetrault

Elaborated on more legal questions that the GNU GPL does not yet address. Certain licenses don’t work as intended in Canada due to differences from US copyright law. Commercialization will encounter problems.

  • Implicitly waives author