The Participation Age

I’m keynoting at the Open Source Business Conference tomorrow. Tune in, and you’ll hear me talk about Sun’s objectives with free and open source software: to lower the cost of computing, lower barriers to entry, and consistent with our history, fuel the communities that give rise to the next era of network computing. What’s the next era? The Participation Age, in which an open and competitive network fuels growing opportunities for everyone – not simply to draw data or shift work around the world, but to participate, to create value and independence. If the Information Age was passive, the Participation Age is active.

You’ll also hear me tell a couple stories that highlight a growing threat to the evolution of a participative network – duplicity working against the objectives of those most in need of assistance.

The first story relates to integrity in the world of open source. A few months ago, I was in a park over a weekend, when an individual, the CEO of an open source company, walked up and introduced himself. We got to talking, he was obviously a very smart guy. We were talking for awhile, when I began to relay my frustration surrounding Sun’s (now fading) perception as ‘proprietary‘ in the marketplace, especially among the open source community.

I told the individual that we’d been earnest in our contributions to the community, from NFS to OpenOffice, Java to OpenSolaris (Sun is by far the single largest contributor to the open source marketplace, having recently dwarfed even UC Berkeley’s contributions). And we’re sincere in our desire to preserve and promote standards and competition – from railroads to electricity, standards are critical to progress.

That said, we believe there is real value in intellectual property, real (if maximally defensive) value even in software patents (notwithstanding the USPTO’s atrocious track record). But nonetheless, we’d been criticized for our unwillingness to allow Java to fork, for continuing our investment in the open sourcing of Solaris (while our peers dumped their OS’s for Linux), and for resisting the position that software patents should be banned entirely. And most of all, we’d been roundly criticized for suggesting open source was not, and cannot be considered the equivalent of an open standard.

His advice? “Just lie. It’s what a bunch of us do to keep the slashdotters at bay.” If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you know that’s not my style – and if you’ve been watching the headlines recently, you’ve seen the impact duplicity has on executives and the companies they manage.

So why are we open sourcing Solaris? To drive innovation, and eliminate the barriers to participating for those currently unable to afford the benefits of an open network (that’s why the binaries are free, not just the source code). Why did we choose to author our own license, the Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL), vs. use an existing one? First, because we felt the existing licenses had serious flaws – the Mozilla Public License, for example, restricts from the issuer any power to change the license, and predetermines all disputes must be heard in Santa Clara, California (not good if you’re a Bolivian developer). Alternatively, the GPL expressly limits choice by disallowing the inclusion of non-GPL code into GPL projects – and exports a form of IP colonialism to nations seeking to create their own means of production.

What tack did we take? We created an open, reusable license, and contributed it back to the community. And with it, we remain consistent in our belief that intellectual property licenses exist to enforce IP models, not the political theories of a paternalistic nation or individual.

And having just spent some time with a breadth of network equipment OEM’s at the GSM World Congress; and a series of representatives from developing nations at a recent customer event – I can assure you they are both suspicious of richly valued companies, with enormous patent portfolios and legal teams, evangelizing the benefits of the GPL and the elimination of software patents. They’re beginning to see it as a means of forcing them to disgorge their intellectual property, and convey it to those same richly valued companies. Free software they understand: they also understand exploitation.

The second story relates to the economic motivations behind some in the world of open source. One of the most motivated folks I met recently was a venture capitalist, among the most successful in the history of the industry. He’s backed a variety of household names in the IT world. And he’d begun to turn his attention to the frenzy around open source.

Over the course of our conversation, he started telling me about his efforts to encourage his portfolio companies to lobby governments to bring software patents to an end. What? Until then, my view on the elimination of software patents was that the vanguard of that position were those without the ability or wherewithal to fight against established patent aggressors. Those who could honestly look at the confusion the US has created around the proliferation of spurious patents, who sought to help others defend against potential inequity – while they built their own value.

But I’m confident an accomplished Silicon Valley VC wasn’t the sympathetic constituency the European Union had in mind when it recently considered the reformation – and elimination – of software patents. Asking fledgling nations without software patent portfolios to forego the creation of defensible IP – while the wealthiest nation on earth keeps its powder dry – doesn’t seem equitable or desirable. At best, the view that patents should be eliminated for everyone but the US is misguided – at worst, it’s a truly cynical attempt to magnify inequities rather than destroy them.

What’s my view on patents?

Remember the $92M we paid to Kodak – to resolve a legal dispute brought about by Kodak’s acquisition of a patent whose exclusive value was in litigation? What is indemnity worth? Clearly something, minimally the $92M Sun paid to protect its customers and the Java community – the whole global Java community, not just those we’re fond of. Companies should stand behind their products.

And having said it before, let me say it again. I believe in IP. I believe in its value, both economic and social. I believe it should be protected, as any other property, as a means of fostering independence, investment and autonomy. And not just in wealthy nations – but in those struggling to build wealth or pay down debt. I believe the creation, protection and evolution of intellectual property can accelerate everyone’s ability to participate in an open network.

And that, surely, should be everyone’s common goal with free and open source software. It’s not about bringing the competition down, it’s about driving global participation up.

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One response to “The Participation Age

  1. [Trackback] Here at Talis, we do a lot to reach out to our customers, as you would expect. They, for example, get Talis Talk every month, and communicate with teams and individuals here in the usual variety of ways. We’re…

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