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Interview with DINAcon Keynote Speaker Simon Phipps (President Open Source Initiative)

DINAcon: We are celebrating 20 years of the Open Source Initiative. Open Source has been wildly successful. “Mission accomplished” or is there still work to do?

Simon Phipps: The answer has to be both “yes” and “no”. Yes, we have been an effective catalyst for open source to become the expected mode for any new software project. But no, there are still people whose understanding of why open source is effective is so challenged they propose applying restrictions to who can use it, or attempt to bypass the community approval step for licenses, or simply use the term “open” when the thing they are describing is anything but. So we have plenty of work to do, both to sustain the success so far and to educate newcomers (and, sadly, not-so-newcomers) about why open source works.

Is the ideological battle between the camps “Free Software” and “Open Source” ongoing and still relevant?

Only in some minds. For most of us, there is no conflict. Bruce Perens, one of the founders of OSI and the author of the Open Source Definition, describes open source as a marketing campaign for free software. If you’re discussing between individuals, the “why” will include the ethics and morals of software freedom. The same people discussing their work will focus on the cost savings, collaboration, innovation and benefits of an agile methodology. As someone once said, war is over, if you want it.

The Open Source Initiative (OSI) is chiefly known as a safeguard for the many Open Source licenses. Would you say the original 10 criteria of Open Source still apply? In your opinion, are there more more to add?

Yes, they are all just as relevant as ever. I would favour adding an extra one to clarify that an open source license conveys all the rights necessary to use, study, improve and share the software and that any terms which explicitly withhold rights any person may need (such as patent rights) render a license non-open-source.

Are copyleft licenses attractive for new business models? How relevant are permissive licenses in comparison?

First, all open source licenses are permissive – they give you permission to use, study, improve and share the code for any purpose. Some licenses however condition the permission to share on reciprocal behaviour enforced by copyleft terms.
Both reciprocal and non-reciprocal licenses have roles in various business models. Projects like LibreOffice and the Linux kernel succeed in large part because no participant has greater rights than any other and all are expected to make their innovations public. This creates a level playing field which encourages investment. On the other hand, many developer-centric and smaller projects benefit from non-reciprocal terms as they are then able to be combined in many different licensing contexts.

What is the current role of large enterprises like Microsoft, Oracle and Google in the Open Source environment? How do you counter “open washing”?

The most effective large enterprise usage of open source – as exemplified by companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter – have a monetisation startegy that is independent of any single open source project and are thus freed to be peer innovators with communties. This is the ideal way to work with open source. Microsoft is in a transition phase, with a future in the cloud which depends on being a good open source citizen, but a past that exemplifies the worst behaviours of an opponent of open source. Their most recent decisions have been extremely promising and I think they are heading in the right direction, but there’s still a way to go before their legacy businesses stop patent extortion and FUD against open source.
Open washing – or fauxpen source as some like to call it – remains a problem. OSI acts by both legal measures and by mobilising the community to help companies realise that misrepresenting their products is a really bad idea. But it is indicative of the huge value of open source today. If it wasn’t valuable, people would not try to pretend they had it!

We use the term digital sustainability to describe a framework, and an ideal for the participants in a digital ecosystem to strive toward. How would you describe the contribution of the OSI on the sustainability of the global digitalized society?

Open source provides the ultimate context for software sustainability when it’s done right. By gathering together a diverse community of independently motivated developers, deployers and users, an open source project can stay maintained and applicable long after a proprietary approach would have either reached the point where returns did not justify investment or where pursuit of new revenue or markets would have left existing users behind. To achieve this, open source needs an OSI-approved license, a respectful governance thet yields equal opportunity for all, an inclusive community that is constantly self-correcting to ensure equal opportunity regardless of human differences and an independent and charitable owner for all assets to protect against capture. OSI has played a key role in enabling this reality.