Next Gen Open Source?

Like a few other geeks, I’ve lately been reading Paul Graham’s excellent Hackers and Painters. Most insightful, especially in light of the success of Google and Flickr, is Paul’s views on the advantages of “weblications” over traditional desktop software. Recently, I started wondering about how the transition to web-based services would ultimately affect the Open Source movement.

I’m not alone in this line of thinking, of course. I rarely am. There was a discussion recently on the nature of Google’s contribution to Open Source, in light of an accusation by Krzysztof Kowalczyk that Google (and any other large web-based service) was essentially bleeding the Open Source community for cheap code, and giving little back in return. While Adam Bosworth’s response highlighted the value that people got for free from Google every day, I think he did evade the central thrust of Kowalczyk’s argument, namely that an individual company’s incentives prevented it from contributing back to the Open Source community except when absolutely necessary.

It does illustrate the main hole created by ambiguity in the licenses used to protect Open Source or even “Open Culture” works. Because these licenses are ambiguous about the meaning of “derivative” works, it opens a gap through which companies can fit in order to carve out a commercial enterprise (and I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing). For example, a company can build a web-based service on top of Linux without having to contribute back to the project or release their code under the GPL. This is because creating their web-service didn’t require the company to actually create a “derivative work” of the Linux kernel, only to build an application on top of the operating system. A similar hole was highlighted by the flap sparked by the Trademark blog a few weeks ago when Martin Schwimmer expressed concern that Bloglines was violating his site’s Creative Commons license by aggregating the blog’s RSS feed.

The problem lies in the fact that in a world where the boundaries between applications grows ever more fuzzy, the original intent of Open Source licenses, such as the GPL, is undermined. The original intent of the GPL was to ensure that those who benefitted from an Open Source project where equally obligated to make a contribution back into the community to foster continued innovation and improvement. With that feedback loop broken, companies building web-based businesses will continue to do the only smart thing they can do: exploit the hole, and segment their applications such that they are only obligated to contribute back the minimal amount possible to those Open Source projects to which they make modifications.

On the other hand, I’m not sure we necessarily want to close this hole – doing so may only defeat the rapid adoption of Open Source technology, and prolong the profits that companies can wring out of customers when there is no other viable alternative. In the end, it may be more beneficial for the Open Source community to let these companies subvert this hole in the feedback loop, if only to use it as a clever loss leader to ensure continued rapid adoption, create developer loyalty, and, ultimately, garner protection from those companies not using Open Source who wish to use patent infringement lawsuits or other means to eliminate it as a competitive threat.

Sony, Kottke & Us

There’s nothing the blogosphere loves more than to have its sense of entitlement to free information impugned. After all, it gives us something to blog about. With the debate over whether or not it was acceptable for bloggers to get paid to blog already a distant memory, the blogosphere was spoiling for a fight – and it found it when Jason Kottke posted a clip from Ken Jennings’ Jeopardy swan song and got a cease-and-desist from Sony for his effort. Cue the panties and…bunch!

Come on guys, this was predictable, wasn’t it? I doubt Jeopardy sports a Creative Commons license, so we can hardly be surprised if Sony gets annoyed when someone rips off their content. Fair use? It’s not only dead, it’s been buried long enough that it’s hard to make out the epitaph on the tombstone: Get Used to It.

The content industries are now in the process of encasing Fair Use’s grave in cement in case it gets any ideas of pulling some kind of undead zombie voodoo comeback. The only way forward is to talk about real ways to make this a non-issue in the future. And no Dan, I don’t think holding a boycott is the answer – boycotting has only really worked once. It was against Charles Boycott. In Ireland. In 1880. Haven’t we got better things to do with our lives than to spend them deluding ourselves into believing we’re inflicting fatal injuries by tracking a comically long list of enemies who don’t even acknowledge our existence?

Now, I hate Sony as much as the next guy. Sure, they’re evil, but they’ll die. And rather than stomping around angrily, let’s take a more direct approach to solving this problem. We’ve shown that a little technology is enough to run circles around both government and industry – why don’t we look at the ways we can use our know-how to protect ourselves from these kinds of attacks:

  1. Legal Technology: We’re under assault by corporations, why not use their own weapon against them and incorporate? This is a question that perhaps Wendy or Larry could shed some light on: could a blogger create a shell corporation in such a way that it would that limit the blogger’s liability? That way, someone like Sony could make threats all they wanted – suing the shell corporation would result in little benefit for Sony. If this was a viable option, perhaps hosted blogging tool services could provide it as a value-added service (“To incorporate this blog, click here!”).
  2. Content Distribution Technology: Following in the footsteps of Freenet and Bittorrent, why not develop a truly distributed blogging technology? My buddy Brad Neuberg did some interesting investigation in this area with his Paper Airplane project. Not only would this make it extremely difficult for a company to block content, it would also help the more popular blogs stop being victims of their own success.
  3. Content Discovery Technology: Honestly, have our lives grown so bereft of entertainment that we’ve resorted to caring about such vacuous, artificial crap? There’s boatloads of good public domain, independent content being created out there by people who aren’t even professionals, who do it because they care about creating cool stuff, enough to last a thousand lifetimes. All we need is a way to find the stuff we care about. Developers, help us grab Big Media by the Long Tail, twirl it around, and smack its head against the floor until it breaks open like a piñata!