Open Source, Closed Minds: Can an OS company be part of the OS community?

Editor’s Note: with the recent launch of GigaOm’s, Ostatic, which promotes Open Source by matching users to the right OS tools and resources, we offer this essay on the virtues and vices of OS dogma, by Found|READ contributor Chris Lyman. Chris is founder and CEO of VoIP startup, Fonality, which uses OS. A list of Chris’ earlier F|R pieces is below. Also check out his blog, the Janitor/CEO.

This Open Source world for me has been a mixed bath. I have always felt that making money and ethics were not mutually exclusive. In my early 20s I had the “Microsoft is bad and Bill Gates must die” mentality. But, my Orwellian rant faded over time and I began to have a more balanced perspective on the world, and the technology which fuels it. Perhaps this is the pragmatism which piggybacks aging. Perhaps this is a byproduct of having to pay rent. Either way, I slowly came to see a world where proprietary and 100% free software had their place. I found solace in betwixt – the world of “Open Source”.

Most people don’t actually know the roots of “Open Source”. This term was consciously crafted in a hotel room in the 90s by a huddled council of six wise men. They removed the term “free” — an intentional “fork” from the absolute free path of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) — not to make it less free, but rather, to bake in some of the fundamental tenants of capitalism, and to steer clear of the moral bent of the FSF. Call them pragmatic, call them sell-outs. They foresaw a model that could both defend the free and allow for profit.

Perhaps Open Source is a Social Democrat response to the absolute socialism, even the Liberalism of free software. Either way, baking free and profit into the same non-homogenous stew is a daunting task and one that has since made Stallman queasy.

But to me, Open Source made sense: a model which spurred capitalism would gain wider reach in a world which is growing more capitalistic at every glance. Reach is what it is all about. And Open Source managed to retain something from free software that I loved – the community. It is the community that is the heart of an OS project – that from which springs up a well of brainpower, bug-fixes, documentation, and most importantly: passion.

But, wow, this is where I have been surprised. The “community” of Open Source has been as vitriolic as any community I have ever witnessed. I have seen people wielding the bludgeon of the blogosphere and ragosphere to their vertical advantage. Pen names, pseudonyms and false cover permeate the propaganda machine that rages in so many projects.

The worst part has been the hypocrisy. In many of these communities, everyone seems to hate *anyone else* who tries to make money out of Open Source. But, 9 out of 10 times they *too* are trying to make money. Better said, People in Open Source hate anyone making *more* money out of it than they are.

The source (hehe) of most of the poison is the “good vs. bad” (open vs. closed) debate. Ironically, Open Source was coined to avoid this very morality issue. But the debate begs the question of the wielder: why exactly do you use Open Source? Because it is free or cheap and you are using it as a way to pay your own rent? Or, is it because you are young and idealistic and don’t pay rent? Or, is it because you think it’s your sacred secret that nobody else should be allowed to tamper with? No matter what your reasons, I must also ask you: do *your reasons* really make *you* good and others bad?

And, this is not just a community problem. It well exists within the companies that “sponsor” these projects too. So many of these companies, who got *famous* by *giving* their code to the community, now feel that they are the rightful owner of it – sending gaggles of lawyers after people using the name of the project (because the code is now owned by the community, the trademark is the only thing left for the lawyers to sink their teeth into). That last sentence was a doozy, but read it again and see if doesn’t smack of hypocrisy. You gave it away, therefore you don’t own it. It doesn’t work that way.

Honestly, I get so confused on what is good and what is bad anymore. Is Open good? Is Closed bad? Or, is free good and commercial bad? Are companies “good” when they start Open projects and then “bad” when they try to monetize them? Are users good when they are contributing code and bad when they aren’t? Or wait, I got it: users are good when they are tinkering, but bad when they try to make a living off of it? Am I good or bad? Does this affect my Christmas payload? Mother? Help. For God sake, help.

All the swirling and twirling is impeding the progress that Open Source espoused to create. Projects get forked into comas, the power of the community is used to spread dissent instead of spread ideas. Combine all of this with the anonymity of the Net, and you have a bunch of people and companies who act very disrespectfully towards each other. Personally, for me, it has been hella depressing.

But I won’t lose faith. The symbiosis between Open Source company and Open Source community is palpable. The symbiosis between competing Open Source companies is undeniable. It is an ecosystem and we are all part of it. Certainly we have to abolish these notions of absolute good or evil. Good and evil are not absolutes. Good is not a state. It is a goal.

Maybe Open and Closed actually have no relationship with good and evil? Maybe it is all about transparency. As long as you (user or company) are transparent, anyone who works with you or uses your code, knows what they are getting. Recently, my company made a “bad” move with our own community. We weren’t transparent with them. Does that make us evil? Yes, unless we correct ourselves. So, as CEO, I took the blame for it and wrote an open letter to the community about it. That in itself doesn’t make us good either. It is the sum total of decisions made over a relevant time span that determines ultimate goodness in either man or his enterprise.

So, folks, let’s all stop the fuss (not the FOSS). Let’s all STOP trying to pretend that the world isn’t a commercial place and we don’t need to all pay rent. Let’s all stop pretending that we don’t want to make money. I say: sweep away the hypocrisy! Save the binary moralism for the playground! As soon as we all admit that on one level or another we have similar ambitions — the sooner we can stop pretending we are good and others are bad. This will free us up of our own guilt and give us the freedom of heart and the clarity of mind to get back to my original proposition – making money and ethics are not mutually exclusive.

Chris Lyman’s earlier Found|READ posts include:

* Beware of Employees Tossing ‘Roses Where You Walk’

* The Power of “I Don’t Know”

* Startup Math: 1 + 1 = 1/2