An Organic Open Source Movement?
by DJ Walker-Morgan
Should open source look to the organic food business for a model of how to integrate principles and business?
The debate about "open core" has reignited in the open source community; "Open core" is where a vendor has a core of open source software which they sell with their own, proprietary, closed source extensions. Some of these vendors, such as SugarCRM and Eucalyptus describe themselves as open source companies, but critics point out that they have proprietary code providing important or essential features. This, the companies say, is a business model which attracts venture capital and creates revenue streams.
No one disputes the idea that companies should be able to release or use open source or free software and be able to make money from it, as long as they respect the licences. Numerous companies, such as say Apple, already use and contribute to open source projects, but don't describe themselves as open source companies.
It is when an "open core" company claims it is an "open source company" that some become vexed. They feel that an open source company shouldn't be owning and closing their code, even if they have a large part of it under an open source licence. The "open core" vendors respond by saying they are catering to customer demand for their closed extensions and that this is their route for monetising the open source code. There are numerous points of view on the issues and an active debate.
But what if there was an analogous situation outside the world of IT which could inform the debate? Where would we find a process of manufacturing, based on fiercely held principles of how the product is created, which ties together in the market with other products not created with those principles in mind? And where an established market place has adapted to consumer demand for products made under those principles, but also learnt that consumers don't appreciate being misled about how tightly those principles are held. And where the principled end product is often indistinguishable, in terms of immediate benefits or apparent quality, from the unprincipled version. The Organic Food movement could be, I suggest, such an analogue.
Where open source has the open source definition, the organic food business has a community which has created a number of now internationally recognised definitions of what makes food organic and now has organisations that certify the organic compliance of companies that claim to make organic products.
While artificial additives, genetically modified components and synthetic pesticides are common in non-organic food production, organic food must be free of them. And it isn't just the ingredients that need to be organic; the processing systems around making the final products needs to be sufficiently separated from non-organic processing so that non-organic material doesn't build up and get mixed in with organic product.
In an analogous way open source software needs to be freely available without restriction, rather than having been treated with "artificial additives" such as closed source extensions, "genetically modified components" like proprietary integration or "pesticides" like dual-licences.
There is much to commend marketing food products made using organic ingredients; as long as you, according to some of the governmental standards, don't claim your product is organic if it has less than 95% of organic ingredients. At the same time, you can't claim your farm or food company is organic if the bulk of your production in non-organic. This position is, though, a compromise position which has developed through the integration of organic standards into legally backed standards.