Food for lawyers

Matt Asay suggests that a definition for an open source company would be:

An open source company is one that, as its core revenue-generating business, actively produces, distributes, and sells (or sells services around) software under an OSI-approved license.

So, supposing that a company produces a software product. It is released under the GPL (or other OSI-approved license). Its business model is to sell versions of the software under a commercial license (the famous “dual-licensing” business model). In such a case, the core revenue-gnerating business produces, distributes, and sells software which is explicitly not under an open source license — even though the exact same bits are available under an open source license.

Under the proposed definition would such a company be an open source company?


Weighing in

Nat asks a difficult question. One that I am frequently in the habit of posing, although not as straightforwardly. For example, the copyright notice for Windows XP (I haven’t seen the one for Vista yet) advises us that

Portions of this product are based in part on the work of the Regents of the University of California, Berkeley and its contributors. Because Microsoft has included the Regents of the University of California, Berkeley, software in this product, Microsoft is required to include the following text that accompanied such software:


Portions of this software are based in part on the work of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Because Microsoft has included the Massachusetts Institute of Technology software in this product, Microsoft is required to include the following text that accompanied such software:

and many others.

Obviously, that makes Microsoft’s Windows XP an Open Source product, built as it is upon BSD licensed software, and Microsoft, an Open Source company. Or perhaps not. Or perhaps, in a homeopathic way.

If the definition of “open source” includes any software that incorporates BSD licensed code, then I think we’re approaching the point where all software is open source software. My personal recent favorite is the recently GPL’d Xara Xtreme. It’s a drawing program. The license is GPL. Check out the build instructions. Especially step 4. It seems that the rendering library is provided as binary only. A curious fusion: binary-only GPL software.

I think it’s fair to say that pretty much all software now incorporates some free software components, LGPL’d, BSD’d, or whatnot. Mathematica does. Apple’s Mac OSX does. Adobe Photoshop does.

I saw the same thing happen to “Object Orientation”. The Object Oriented Programming Systems, Languages and Applications (OOPSLA) conference used to be frequented by people working in brand new object-oriented languages like Smalltalk. Then, somewhere along the way, every programming language (including Perl and Fortran and Cobol) added object oriented extensions, and it was difficult to find any programming which wasn’t object oriented. Here we are with open source software.

It’s not meaningless. It’s a synonym for digital software. Or, maybe, object-oriented software.

On the plus side, that means that Nat can invite anybody to OSCON.

On the plus side, that means that Open Source has achieved world domination.

On the minus side, it doesn’t feel a whole lot different than when most software was proprietary.

Open Source is a sourcing strategy for software users and manufacturers. It’s like software-written-by-consultants-instead-of-employees, which we don’t have a nice word for, but we could make one up. How about consultative software? How is consultative software different from regular software? Is the software consultative if some employees and some consultants work on it? Of course it is. What if the consultants are marketing consultants, but all the software is written by employees? Well, that should probably count, too.

As long as the definition (of anything) is based on the production process instead of the finished product, it becomes difficult to distinguish, given the finished product, which process was used — unless the process affects the finished product in some definable way — in which case you should define the difference based on that “finished product” difference. And for anything with a complex production process, it can always be true that some part of the production process can incorporate any methodology you like.

It’s useful to make distinctions. There ought to be some kind of software which isn’t Open Source, which we can distinguish from Open Source Software. I agree with Nat’s definition. I should be able to download it, compile it, and use it. Burn it onto a CD and give it to all my friends. Sell copies at a community fund-raiser.

If I can’t, then it is Open-Source-compatible software, or Open-Source-friendly software, or Open-Source-oriented software, but it isn’t Open Source software. It’s probably Object-Oriented, though, so perhaps they could present at OOPSLA.

Another five things…

While I was away on vacation, I got tagged by Nick and Stephe, so I guess I have to cough up the Five Things. Ever mindful that one’s identity is established by “the set of things you don’t know about me” (you know, mother’s maiden name, name of first pet, etc.), I am compelled by the Law of Chain Letters to reveal Five Things You Don’t Know About Me.

  1. I grew up in São Paulo, in Villa Buarque — between Avenida Santo Amaro and Parque Ibirapuera. That means I used to be bilingual in English and Brazilian Portuguese — although the Portuguese is a bit rusty now.
  2. The library at the small school I attended did not have a card catalog for the paperback book section. In sixth or seventh grade I undertook a project to type up a card catalog (on my Olivetti manual typewriter) for the paperbacks — two index cards for each book, so they could be located by author or by title. (I had to buy Delicious Library when it came out because the idea of automating the building of a card catalog had a certain nostalgic appeal.) For some reason, I remember wrestling with the question of whether Daphne du Maurier should be filed under “D” or “M”. There is a right answer.
  3. My family and I came to America on a cargo ship, the Burg Sparrenberg, which was carrying raw cocoa and a few passengers. One of the passengers was a firm believer that eye exercises would eliminate the need for spectacles. Alas, I still wear glasses. Perhaps I didn’t do the exercises correctly.
  4. When I was in high school, we used to take the subway down to the McAlpin Hotel on 34th Street for USCF chess tournaments. As black, I would always play the Petroff’s Defense for King’s pawn openings. I favored the Indian defenses for Queen’s pawn openings.
  5. In college, I stopped playing chess and took up Go. I used to hang out at the student center coffee house trolling for games. Eventually, this obsession led me to drop out of school. I did, however, go back the following year and graduate.

Now we get to the hard part. Most of the people I can think of to pass this along to are non-bloggers. Calling them out “bloggishly” as it were, wouldn’t work. So, I’m going to widen the circle by using a generational shift. I have five children over the age of 16. Matthew, Kimberly, Kayla, Sara, and Corey. Tag. You’re it. Five things that your father (and the rest of the world) doesn’t (don’t) know about you. You could even post them to your MySpace account.

And encourage five other people to do the same.

Web Page

Summer is the season for circus camp. Yesterday was the end-of-session show. In preparation for which, Chris mocked up a schedule and roster for the various events. It turned out that as the show took shape, changes needed to be made (as they always do). The biggest change came with some of the aerialist routines; specifically the Spanish Web act. The schedule and roster needed to be updated.

“I need a new Web page”, said Chris.

By which, of course, she meant the piece of paper upon which were written down the details of the Spanish Web act.

Yes, chez nous, the meaning of “Web page” is seasonal.


Cutting the tree down is the easy part.

It feels like you’ve made a lot of progress when you yell “Timber” and hear the big crash.

But getting the stump out is usually the bigger job.

Gina Responds

Since I don’t enable comments (*sigh* spam), those who want to comment have to e-mail me. Here’s Gina’s response to my last post:

Dear R0ml,

I am writing to comment on your recent blog post, “Trophy Day”. In
paraphrasing what I meant, you may have unintentionally skewed my
ideas ever so slightly in order to facilitate the analogy between
Trophy Day and IT. As I have spent decades working with children,
however, I find it necessary to clarify my thoughts on this matter.
Although I was disturbed by what I observed at the event in question, I
considered myself heartbroken, not furious. OK – maybe I was a little
frustrated. And so I fumed. Just a little.

Yes, I believe that trophies should be reserved for the select few that
rise above. That’s how the world works, after all. Think National Merit
Scholarship, MacArthur Fellowship, Nobel, Tony, etc. I also agree that we set
our children up for an inevitable letdown when they reach that point in their
lives when they are no longer rewarded for simply showing up. However,
I am concerned that your readers think I believe such a meritocracy is
appropriate for the 3 to 5 set. I explicitly do not.

What concerned me most about “Trophy Day” was not that everyone received
a trophy as opposed to the few who earned it, but that there were any trophies
at all. I have taught gymnastics to preschoolers (numbering in the thousands)
and I have observed that the joy they experience is in the moment of motion,
and even more so in the acquisition of a much eluded skill, or the triumph over
a previous fear. It is NOT in getting a cold hard trophy to be photographed and
piled onto the heap of medals, certificates, and awards left to gather dust while
the ability to run, jump, swing, think, and take risks should last a lifetime.
Formalizing these achievements makes them an end, not a beginning.

It seems that we are conditioning our children to perform for a
reward, and not for joy. I happily noticed that only a fraction of the kids at
John’s event had learned this lesson, as most were still skipping from event
to event, oblivious of their parents and their requisite cameras, but I was saddened
nonetheless. It is only a matter of time until those eager, inquisitive, joyful children
forget what it feels like to really live as they themselves become the trophies of their
parents and grandparents, stiff, bored, and joyless.


And that, dear reader, is where (some) open source software comes from: the children who grew up to program for the joy of it.

Gym Trophy

This weekend was the end-of-year “Trophy Day” for John’s pre-school gymnastics class. All the pre-schoolers show up for a gymnastics exhibition, attended by parents, grandparents and other relatives. Following the exhibition, all the students are awarded trophies. ALL the students are awarded trophies. I missed the event. When Gina came home, she was fuming. (As Gina is Sicilian, when she is fuming it is appropriate to conjure up volcanic images.)

“You know how you’re always talking about how advertising is going to destroy our civilization?” she asked. “Well, you’re wrong. Trophies will be our doom.”

Well, all right. She didn’t actually say the words “Trophies will be our doom”, but she was fuming, and, being Sicilian, gesticulating violently. Plus her usually impeccable grammatical constructions suffered from the onslaught of her Mediterranean temperament. I’m taking some editorial license and paraphrasing what she meant. Which was most certainly “Trophies will be our doom”

The reasoning goes something like this. It used to be that we believed in merit; in winners and losers; in the salutary effect of adversity and defeat in building character; in learning from mistakes. But on “Trophy Day”, we do not give a trophy to the best gymnast. And maybe the second best gymnast. No, on “Trophy Day”, we give a trophy to every gymnast. In the name of “self-esteem” and “not hurting anybody’s feelings”, we teach our 3-5 year old children that it doesn’t matter how hard you work, how much you learn, how good you become. Everybody gets the same trophy. And the other lesson we teach them is: it’s not about the excitement of learning or the joy of the sport. Mommy and Daddy and Grandma could take pictures every week at your gym lesson. But they don’t, because they don’t care about your skills or your interests nearly as much as they care about the shiny trophy that everybody gets — regardless of the effort you put in or the the quality of your results.

How much better if Grandma was supportive and excited and snapping pictures even if you didn’t get a trophy? How about if the feedback was “work harder and maybe you’ll do better next year”? Think of the self esteem generated by getting a trophy that only a handful of kids could get! Is it unfair that everybody doesn’t get one? Well, maybe some of those kids will win swimming trophies or dancing awards. Is it right to rob every child of the thrill of victory in order to spare them all the agony of defeat?

Alas, such a quaint Dickensian notion. Today, everybody gets a trophy. We are raising a generation which doesn’t understand the difference between winning and losing, success and failure. The doom of civilization, indeed.

But, what, I hear you ask, does this have to do with IT?

At AT&T Wireless, I had the privilege of working for someone who believed that success was different than (and better than) failure. Everybody shouldn’t get a trophy. One of the first things he did was institute a daily call to review the IT failures of the previous day, and discuss steps for resolution. If a system you worked on failed, you had to explain why it failed and what you were going to do about it. It wasn’t a witch hunt. The objective isn’t to shoot the three-year old who doesn’t do a cartwheel correctly. The objective is to teach the three-year old to admit that they, in fact, are not doing it correctly, so they must change something in order to start doing it correctly. And, of course, you’re unlikely to get a trophy for doing it wrong. The trophy is the recognition that you’ve mastered the skills. The bar is always set high enough so that most people haven’t mastered the skills yet.

Before we could improve our IT infrastructure and applications, we had to admit that they needed improving. This turned out to be a significant cultural change. I remember one particularly lengthy argument in which a team refused to admit that a failure to deliver reports on time was their fault. Eventually, we agreed that the customer had seen a service interruption, and somebody should take responsibility on behalf of IT. We made an elaborate certificate with flowery script that read “Acknowledgment of Defect” — and showed the before and after line of code which needed to be changed. We signed it, had it framed, and sent it to the CEO. He loved it. After that, it was easier to get people to admit that they had made a mistake.

Of course, making mistakes was not a good way to get a “trophy”. If you made a mistake, you got taken to task. The task was to learn how to do it correctly. Often, it wasn’t pleasant.

Over the course of my career, I’ve sometimes worked in places where management prefers the “Trophy Day” style of management. No matter how badly things go, the management memo talks about the “great team effort” and “awesome accomplishments” and the “great success”. You never see the memo that starts out: “Our last upgrade was an embarrassing botched job.”

I know why Gina gets so exercised about “Trophy Day”. I don’t like places like that, either.