When trouble strikes, who speaks for open source?

A little unity in a diverse community is a good thing.

For the record, I'm not terribly happy about the patent purchase agreement that's running in parallel to the Novell-Attachmate acquisition deal. The thought of 882 Novell patents getting sold to CPTN Holdings, LLC (a holding consortium made up of Apple, EMC, Microsoft, and Oracle America) does not sit well with me.

Now, also for the record, a source inside one of these four companies told All Things Digital's John Paczkowski "'We get to buy in at a cheap price and get a license to a very valuable portfolio... It's cheap defensive insurance.'"

I'm sure.

It is, like anything else in the world, possible that this is the reason behind the patent grab. If these are covering technologies that affect networking and cloud computing, areas that everyone and their sister are trying to get into, then a defensive stance makes sense.

But even if these patents have no direct correlation to open source, do you think the CPTN members will really miss a chance to spread some FUD if it suits them to? After all, in 2004, Steve Ballmer made the claim Linux violated 228 Microsoft patents, a claim that was revised upwards to 235 in 2007. Who will lay odds that in late 2011, if this patent purchase agreement goes through, that number will change to, say, 1117 patents?

With all of this discomfort, it's no wonder people are upset. Sometimes to the point of doing things they've never tried before.

When the Open Source Initiative (OSI) announced last week they had notified the German Federal Cartel Office (Bundeskartellamt) their concerns about the deal, my first thought was "when did they become a watchdog for the open source community?" After all, it seems a little weird, since the OSI has never, to my knowledge, tried to short-circuit a business deal that was potentially hostile to open source before.

I'll admit it, I was concerned that in this case the OSI had overstepped their bounds, until after further research I discovered that the Bundeskartellamt is asking for public comments about the formation of CPTN Holdings. Then the OSI's actions made a little more sense.

It's this kind of fits-and-start response, though, that worries me about these kinds of aggressive moves against open source. It's inconsistent and potentially dangerous.

The OSI has a response, but the Free Software Foundation hasn't. Nor has the Linux Foundation. Or Red Hat. Or Canonical. Or any of the other major community interests. And if or when they do respond, will their response be a choir in unison with other community voices, or a cacophony of ineffectual noise? I worry that it will be the latter, and that's not good. Because now we get second-guessing, organizations looking weak, or stepping all over themselves and each other.

This is not a new debate. When Linux is maligned, who speaks for Linux? The Linux Foundation seems suited for that role, but all eyes will be on the lookout for comments from Linus Torvalds, who is usually more... direct in what he has to say. Either spokesperson is a legitimate source for direction, but what does the community do when the messages are different?

And that's between two elements of the same community. Imagine the conflicting messages if Linux, OpenBSD, Solaris, and FreeBSD were to take a stand against open source attacks?

We often celebrate the diversity of the Linux community, but every once in a while it would be a good idea to come together and reinforce the things we all have in common and be ready to defend the community as a whole--even if it means working with companies and individuals we don't agree with. Competition makes open source stronger, but not if that competition is at the expense of all else.

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