… No Stinking License

Eric Raymond is the author of “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” the 1997 essay that Wikipedia calls “the manifesto of the open source movement.” Today I think media need an open source revolution — a sharing of techniques in the public domain — to build a marketplace for small-scale content producers. But how can open systems encourage private profit? That’s the sort of thing Eric thinks about, which is why I recently read an interview several times geekier than my usual fare to grasp Eric’s unorthodox views on that icon of open source, the general public license (GPL).

First, here’s a quick primer. Open source refers to software developed in public, by volunteers. The source code — the actual working magic — is available for anyone to use and modify. According to Wikipedia, the general public license requires that improvements to open source code must be re-licensed under the GPL — the intention being that refinements will be tossed to the public, to be used by regular folks or improved by other code-writers.

The June 30 interview in OnLamp.com, was intended to let Eric explain why he recently suggested the GPL is unnecessary. “Many people will view this as a heresy,” he tells the interviewer. “It’s part of my job to speak heresy in ways other people might feel afraid to do.”

Apparently Eric believes that open source is such a superior development system that it doesn’t need to force developers (through GPL) to toss their improvement back into the public domain. Open source derives its superiority from the fact that so many developers scrutinize alterations that bugs are discovered faster. If developers cheat, and do not put improved versions back into the public domain, they give up access to this community of troubleshooters. And presumably they’ll get buggy code. “My current belief is that the free market will do quite a good job of punishing defectors on its own,” Eric says.

I’m not sure I agree or that I know enough about software development to venture an opinion. But as I’ve written before, Web media need to embrace open source methods. That means we’re going to face the same issues as the software folks. How to create free and open systems that encourage and rewards private effort? How to prevent proprietary freeloaders from hijacking public efforts?

If I had answers I would share them. All I can offer are these questions and an observation. People who create content are bound to be more fractious than software engineers. At least software engineers share professional norms. Content creators may have little in common as regards their beliefs, backgrounds, even training. It’s inevitable that open source publishing efforts will schism. Like-minded cliques will peel off from the main effort and go their own way. Perhaps they’ll come up with techniques that can be adopted back by the main group. Perhaps they’ll just put out buggy content. Either way, Eric’s observations about the market being the best disciplinarian is particularly appropriate in publishing. Ultimately, you have to believe the best ideas will win.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media