Murphy's Law: 98 Percent of Companies Use Open-Source, 29 Percent Contribute Back. What?


A recent survey hit my radar this weekend and, I must say, I’m not that surprised by the results. Contrary to my usual columns, I won’t bury the lede: Accenture polled 300 large organizations in both the public and private sectors and—surprise!—found that half of them are “fully committed” to using open-source software in their businesses.

To be honest, I expected results more in line from the Zenoss survey I ran across this weekend, which notes that 98 percent of all enterprise companies use open-source software in some capacity. But I’ll leave that difference up to nomenclature / polling differences. The real juice of Accenture’s story is buried in a single, meager sentence somewhere toward the bottom of the press release: less that 29 percent of surveyed companies intend to shovel their open-source contributions/modifications/development back into the community.

Wait a second.

We’ve been down the, “What is open-source?” road before. I won’t bore you with a 700 word diatribe surrounding the exact definition of the term (it’s not that boring to me ). However, it’s within the very nature of open-source to be community-dependent and, more importantly, community-driven. To not contribute back to the very people who basically give you an entire software platform completely gratis… well… it’s just not right!

However, I’m honestly surprised that the “29 percent” figure isn’t a lot lower. I can only speak to that-which-I-work-for-beyond-Maximum-PC, but it seems as if a number of those situated in higher positions within a company far too easily equate the phrase “open source” with “completely free,” as in, “If we could find an open source project to replicate X costly service, that would be awesome!”

There’s nothing ultimately wrong about that. Or is there? Should open-source software be treated as an extension of the definition of “freeware,” or should that which carries an open-source license be held to a higher standard than a mere free download for the masses?

Simply put, what does open-source want to be? That’s kind of a vague question shouted to the heavens, as it were, so let me clarify. If the very nature of “open-source” is defined by a software’s free price tag mixed with few restrictions on modifying the underlying source code to one’s own needs, then great. That’s about where we are right now.

I would assume that we’ve created “open-source” software partly as a means to distinguish it from simple “free” applications that, themselves, can be walled off from third-party modification while nevertheless remaining free to download and use. That was a mouthful and, worse, it veers narrowly close to the, “open-source versus free” discussion I’ve been trying to avoid. So allow me to simplify: If one downloads open-source, should one be compelled to contribute to the betterment of the program?

That would royally shaft anyone looking to benefit from open-source software as it currently exists, but is that so much of a bad thing? I realize that not everyone is a full-fledged codemonkey, so it’s not as if (perhaps) you, or I, could fire up Notepad++ and start hacking away at the innards of a particular application (I simplify; of course we wouldn’t use Notepad++). Still, part of me wonders if that shouldn’t be a de-facto requirement for open-source software.

Yes, I said it. Ditch the, “You can modify open-source apps in private and never release them to the community if you so desire” loophole. Ditch the, “You may download this and run it across an entire enterprise for no cost whatsoever” deal. Relegate open-source software to the contributors: Only those that propagate an application in some capacity--be it raw coding, publicity help, hosting mirrors, whatever—can reap the benefits of the “free” software.

The benefits, of course, are more than just free. Open-source, by its very nature, opens up an application to an almost Wiki-like pool of contributors, all willing to sacrifice their time, talent, and energy toward bettering a product simply, “because we can.” Why should so many others just take from the community chest or, worse, take and modify… but not give back?

Would this really stick it to those that depend on “free” software to survive? Not really. What’s to stop a group from releasing two versions of a software: One that’s open-source—up-to-the-minute support and feature additions so long as you, yourself, contribute—and one that’s freeware—a lesser-supported version that you may not alter in the slightest. Heck, maybe it’ll even have built-in advertising or something along those lines.

But 29 percent? Only 29 percent of companies using open-source intend to give back to the hand that fed them? The spirit of open source spins in its grave; that’s practically theft.

David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software. He can't code applications for beans.

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