Thursday, December 21, 2006

Hackers Still Drive Open-source Development

Volunteer hackers still play an important role in open-source software development, despite an increase in paid open-source developers hired by large vendors, says Michael Tiemann, Red Hat Inc.'s vice president of open-source affairs. Tiemann is also president of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), a nonprofit group that promotes open-source software. At a symposium late last month in Delhi, India, on the effect of intellectual property laws on innovation and progress, he discussed a wide range of issues in an interview with the IDG News Service.

Is the hacker culture disappearing from open-source development as corporate IT shops embrace the concept? The hacker community has always been doing its work from the margins. That does not mean that it wasn't important in the past, and it does not mean it won't be important in the future. But it remains non-mainstream. At the same time, the commercial community has benefited tremendously from rebellious hackers. When a hacker points out that a particular protocol has great security weaknesses, the commercial community who pays attention to that is better for it. The commercial community that attempts to cover it up or deny it puts more people at risk.

Is there something that the OSI can do to make hackers feel more comfortable in the changing open-source environment, where large companies like IBM pay employees for such work? The fact that IBM has a large team doing open-source development is great, and many of the people doing that work for IBM are hackers. They are renegades that just happen to get their paychecks from IBM. Of course there are some very conventional people who are also getting paychecks. I think the reason why open-source has not been corrupted by capital is because capital is almost irrelevant to open-source. The most important thing in software is not financial capital but intellectual capital. The investment by IBM and other companies [in intellectual capital] is a small drop in the bucket.

Once large commercial interests get involved in open-source, isn't there a risk of their creating barriers to entry? One of the great goals of both open-source and free software is to ensure that whatever barriers exist are not sufficient to stop an individual developer from making an individual contribution to the software. That is how I got into this, and I believe that the [GNU General Public License] Version 2 and the GPL Version 3 both provide that kind of protection.

Does forking, or changing open-source code, represent much of a threat to the open-source movement? Forking is a freedom that ensures a robust democracy, when Developer A can basically say, "I no longer trust Developer B, and I am going in my own direction." That freedom to fork is the democratic proc�ess being realized. In open-source, people can choose how they want to participate, whether it's the selection of license or the selection of code branches. And we won't lose that freedom.

What is your view on the new GPL Version 3 being promoted by the Free Software Foundation? From a Red Hat perspective, we are participating in the GPL discussion panels. We have representation in both the community and legal panels. As an open-source community member, I would like to see the GPL 3 broadly adopted.

Does the debate over GPL Version 3 reflect a divergence between the Free Software Foundation and the open-source community on how they view software? I think it is possible to live in both worlds. It is definitely true that there are some people who care about only one of those two worlds, but I think that those two worlds can coexist. I think people can be thinking about freedom and be thinking about commerce at the same time.