Thursday, April 5, 2007

Eclipse as the happy medium

For the past three years I’ve been studying open source communities with Siobhán O’Mahony. We produced one paper derived from our interest in a particular open source problem (code without community), and will be presenting our latest paper next month at the European Association of Management conference in Paris.

[Eclipse Logo]As part of that research, I was struck by how unusual the Eclipse Foundation is. Apache is also governed by a foundation, but corporations are deliberately de-emphasized in favor of individuals. The OSDL and FSG (er, Linux Foundation) have the same industry consortium model, but (unlike Apache or Eclipse) it’s hard to argue that the LF controls Linux.

In response to the same Matt Asay column I mentioned yesterday, Mike Milinkovich, the executive director of the Eclipse Foundation also blogged about the ongoing GPLv3 saga. Milinkovich must have been channeling me (only kidding) when he wrote:

If we replace the monotony of proprietary software with the monotony of a single free software license, we are all losers. Diversity of licenses allows diversity of business models and diversity of competition. Which is a very good thing for the entire community and industry.
On the other hand, Milinkovich seems to waste a lot of bits (if not dead trees) genuflecting at the Free Software Foundation altar:
  1. Free software != GPL. Free software is a principle, and the GPL is one expression of that principle. …
  2. GPL != copyleft. There are quite a few other copyleft licenses (both "strong" and "weak"), the EPL being one. Not everyone agrees with the specific copyleft approach of the GPL. …
  3. L != monetization. There are a great many successful companies built on top of the GPL. But in addition there are also some very successful business built on top of other licenses such as the EPL, Apache and MPL. …
I don’t quite get why approval from the FSF or other GPLniks is so important to Milinkovich or the foundation. The whole reason the term “open source” was invented was to legitimate collaboration between industry and community without having to adhere to the FSF dogma. The Eclipse Public License is an OSI-approved license, and in fact made the cut when the OSI leaders decided to deprecate the vast majority of licenses. As a “weak copyleft” license, the EPL (like the MPL and CPL) is an intermediate point between the completely open (and free) rights granted by the BSD and Apache licenses, and the compulsory sharing of the GPL.

Milinkovich certainly knows what he’s talking about. He worked as a manager for Object Technology International, the Smallltalk shop that IBM bought in 1996 that became the IBM Ottawa Software Lab. As an IBM division, OTI developed the Java IDE that IBM released as Eclipse in 2001. Milinkovich has run the Eclipse Foundation for the past three years.

Milinkovich did hold his head high with his final comments:
So while the GPL community can be quite rightly pleased with itself on completing GPLv3, I hope that they keep the dialogue with other communities positive and respectful. The open source community is a big place, and there is room for many different viewpoints, licenses and business models.
Personally, I’d go further by saying GPL and its adherents are a small part of the overall open source economy that has developed over the past decade — one that would be rather unimportant if Linus Torvalds somehow abandoned the GPL. However, it’s clear that the major players in the industry have to make nice with the FSF because (if for no other reason) its list of approved licenses has a huge impact on their business strategies.

Overall, Milinkovich has a surprisingly capitalist bent for a Canadian (kidding again). But then he’s managing an annual budget of (my estimate) nearly $5 million paid by more than 100 member companies. These firms are not supporting the foundation for the betterment of society, but to further their own specific (profit-making) business models.

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