Is it really a business vs. open source world?

Can corporations be good players in FLOSS? Sure they can.

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It seems like there's no such thing as a non-controversial Linux distribution anymore.

Look at the news and the blogosphere, and lately it seems like every major distro company's in some kind of hot water with various elements of the community.

  • Red Hat. The number-one commercial Linux distro got itself into trouble with the community when it decided a couple of months ago to stop releasing the source code of its included Linux kernel in patch form, but instead as one big ol' blob of code. The effect was noticed by keen-eyed observers a while back, with the rest of us cluing in more recently. The motive was, simply, to make it harder for Oracle to build on Red Hat's specific innovations to the Linux kernel in Red Hat Enterprise Linux. While most industry watchers felt like Red Hat wasn't violating the letter of the GPL by sharing the kernel code in this manner, a good number of people were a bit irked by the strategy in terms of spirit. (Except for those folks who weren't sad to see Oracle on the receiving end of the shaft for a change.)
  • Novell. The trouble over Novell's deal with Microsoft is still--still!--hanging over Novell's collective head, as blogger after blogger continues to make baiting statements like "Mono contamination" and "patent-wary developers" continuing to shy away from SUSE projects and openSUSE. And now, with the pending acquisition by Attachmate, every conspiracy theorist out there is looking for a way to connect the dots from Attachmate to Microsoft.
  • Canonical. To paraphrase the name of a popular Ubuntu fan site, OM [insert expletive here] $DEITY, where could I possibly start? Copyright assignments. Design directions that sometimes run counter to community desires. A public sparring with GNOME over contributions. Banshee royalties. It seems like everyone and their sister has got a beef with Canonical these days. Probably the strongest of these problems, which hasn't gotten a lot of media attention, is the issue of copyright assignments. Canonical's copyright contributor form has some, shall we say, interesting clauses, such as granting Canonical full copyright over any code you submit under said agreement. Canonical promises to let you have "world-wide, non-exclusive, royalty-free and perpetual right to use, copy, modify, communicate and make available to the public" said code, but a lot of developers think the agreement goes too far.

The common problem with these companies seems (on the surface) to be just that--they're companies. Businesses, many argue, are only out to make money and are incompatible with the goals of free software and open source software (FLOSS). I have to admit, it's a compelling argument.

Time and time again, we see instances where business decisions are made that run counter to the ideals of the broader community. (Or appear to run counter.) Business, it seems, cannot be a good citizen of free software, or even the arguably more business-friendly open source branch of software.

As compelling as such a statement may seem, I do not believe it is true.

Businesses who are involved in FLOSS, I would submit, do enormously more good than any bad they might make. They fund innovation, and the people who innovate. They bring customers and developers' products together. They are a source of creativity, fostering global communities of users and developers to work on various projects.

It is easy to lose sight of that, sometimes, when we read the headlines about "Company X puts the screws to Project Y."

It's not that we should take a Pollyannish approach to business and give them carte blanche when they make mistakes. All of the problems I mentioned above (and the countless others that I didn't) need to be addressed individually--just as if problems between individuals in a FLOSS project would have to be addressed.

What shouldn't happen is a broad brushstroke over all business involvement in FLOSS because of mistakes that have and will continue to be made.

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