FOSS, Business, and Psychopathy: Page 3

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Despite the fiction that gives corporations the legal status of people, businesses are not individuals. And this fact is so readily observable that the exceptions hardly seem to count. Personally, my sense of outrage was exhausted long ago.

The Strange Case of LibreOffice

Being outraged when a company looks out for itself has the advantage of re-affirming who you are. In other ways, though, it can be counter-productive.

For instance, in the week since Groklaw expressed a sense of betrayal, its readers have suddenly awoken to the fact that LibreOffice, the OpenOffice.org fork, was started and largely run by Novell employees.

They have also realized that LibreOffice, and likely Go-OO before it, supports the Office Open XML format. In the week since Jones' Christmas editorial, her readers have suddenly appeared on tdf-discuss a LibreOffice mailing list, many of threatening to boycott the fork unless it stops support for Office Open XML.

I am not so much interested here about whether the support for the format is desirable. Probably, those talking of a boycott are right that it helps Microsoft, but many users are going to want the support, and any alternative to Microsoft Office that lacks it is going to be seriously handicapped. The pros and cons need to be seriously debated before a decision is made.

Unfortunately, that is not what is happening. Instead, LibreOffice, which was being widely viewed as preferable to OpenOffice.org a few weeks ago, is now being viewed with suspicion -- although its founders have never concealed their affiliations.

Even worse, that suspicion is being voiced with an arrogance that prevents it being discussed and any common ground for finding a solution. It is as though, with Novell being out of reached, the sense of betrayal focuses on the more accessible LibreOffice. The fact that LibreOffice is accessible because it is acting like a FOSS project, not a corporation, only adds a note of irony to events.

That is where naivety about corporations leads: not just to a feeling of betrayal, but to division within the community, and to increased difficulty in working together for a solution -- to a damaging of FOSS itself.

Corporations and Individuals

You do not have to be an open source advocate as opposed to a free software one to be concerned about this situation. FOSS is now inextricably intertwined with corporations, and, without corporate support, it would not be nearly as advanced today as it is. Nor is this relationship likely to change, since the benefits on both sides are obvious.

Right now, though, FOSS supporters are acting like a turtle whose memory is so short that, each time it circles its bowl, it sees the view for the first time.

Instead of viewing some corporations as friends, the FOSS community needs to see them as allies. The difference is that while friends generally have the same values or motivations, allies can share goals but for different reasons.

The United States and the Soviet Union did not have to agree on economic philosophies to unite against Nazi Germany. Neither should FOSS and corporations have to be in perfect agreement when having common goals is enough reason for cooperation.

The point is that the community needs to recognize that the alliance is probably temporary, and does not imply common values.

When a company acts as a good citizen of the community, it can be applauded in the hopes that it will continue to behave in the same way. However, the community should never forget that the corporation may very well change. Forced to make a choice between community values and its own motivation of profit, nine times out of ten a company is going to choose profit. When that happens, it will probably stop being a FOSS ally.

So what is the solution? Peter Brown, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation, suggests that the community should place its faith in individuals rather than corporations.

Talking a few weeks ago about the ways that companies circumvent the spirit of FOSS while keeping to the letter of its licenses, Brown told me, "Do not trust corporations. They don't have the values that we have as individuals."

His point was that, while working with corporations can benefit FOSS, when a company is FOSS friendly, it is usually because of the enthusiasm of an individual. When that individual leaves or takes a new position, their replacement may make the company less of an ally. As someone who has worked with most of the companies involved with FOSS over the years, Brown advises simply, "Trust individuals."

In other words, the FOSS community needs to stop mistaking corporations for people, and see them as they really are. Once we lower our expectations, we will not only suffer far less angst, but also view corporations and deal with them far more realistically than we do now.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Microsoft, FOSS, Novell

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