Thursday, December 11, 2008

Free Software Foundation Files Suit Against Cisco For GPL Violations

Matt Asay, Savio Rodrigues, Matthew Aslett (just today), and I have recently been having a cross-blog discussion about Cisco and open source. If you haven't been following it, here's the summary.

Matt Asay originally kicked off the debate by noting how Cisco is using a lot of open source in its products.

I responded by saying that using open source wasn't really all that interesting as many companies use open source. The reality, I said, was that Cisco was just driving down its costs and pocketing the additional profit, without passing on any benefits to its customers.

Savio responded to my post by suggesting that there is some benefit for customers when a manufacturer is able to use open source to implement a feature and thereby free-up development resources to implement other features that customers are interested in.

I agreed with that point as far as it went but pointed out that nothing Savio said was particularly specific to open source. Whenever a manufacturer chooses to buy pre-implemented technology rather than reinventing the wheel with its own resources, customers experience the same benefit, whether the technology is closed or open source, and regardless of the price paid, which is zero in the case of open source.

Matt Asay then responded to Savio and my posts saying that he was sympathetic to my view but being a believer in the free market hoped that everything was self correcting in the end ("Leechers never prosper" ??).

Matthew Aslett then joined the discussion with two more points. Quoting Matthew:

  1. The first is that, while Dave notes “if you’re complying with the appropriate license terms, I don’t have a problem with that”, if we assume (as Dave does) that Cisco is abiding by its obligations, then he is effectively asking Cisco to go beyond those obligations in passing on “open source benefits” to users.
  2. I wrote recently about the five stages of engagement in open source communities, as described by the Eclipse Foundation. ... It would probably be fair to say that Cisco is currently at stage two (1, USE in the graphic) in this five stage process (”The vendor begins to make use of open source software internally as part of its ongoing research and development process, realizing that it can save money on non-differentiating code and improve interoperability”). ... In my experience companies quite quickly see the benefit of moving from there to contribute to and then champion open source development, which would be likely to deliver the benefits Dave is looking for.

To respond briefly to Matthew right here, I would simply say that I agree with his model and his basic points as far as they go. I agree that as long as you're legally compliant that everything is fine and that anything beyond that is optional. I also agree with the Eclipse model that Matthew describes in his posting (see the graphic) and that Cisco is currently at stage 1, using open source. (Note that I didn't call this "stage 2" as Matthew did because I find it confusing. The graphic labels this stage "1" and stage "0" is really non-use.)

In short, I'm not suggesting that Cisco is "bad" for doing what they are doing. I'm simply suggesting that we shouldn't be holding the company up as a paragon of open source development for being in Stage 1 and simply using the code. LOTS of companies are in Stage 1 these days. Matthew says, "In my experience companies quite quickly see the benefit of moving from there to contribute to and then champion open source development, which would be likely to deliver the benefits Dave is looking for." This is an example of the kind of forward credit that I don't think Cisco deserves. I won't hold my breath that IOS will be open sourced any time soon.

So, to summarize my original objection, I'm not trying to make a value judgment about Cisco's behavior (I'll point out that Savio first used the "leech" term, not me). I'm simply requesting that everybody be accurate in describing Cisco's behavior, and I'm commenting on things that customers are not getting as long as Cisco is just using open source. Whether that's a problem for customers or not is up to them.

Now, my own personal belief is that there are many reasons that customers benefit from open platforms, but as others have pointed out, I work for Vyatta and I'm quite biased that way. Like Matt Asay, I'm a believer in free-markets and I don't believe that open-source is a one-size-fits-all business model for every situation, industry, etc., but I do strongly believe that open source fuels innovation in ways that closed-source can't. Some people don't agree with me and would prefer to buy closed products. That's fine. They have that right.

But all that's a moot point because one of our fundamental assumptions, that Cisco is complying with the terms of the various open source licenses, appears to be in question. Today the FSF filed suit against Cisco for violating the terms of the GPL and LGPL. You can read more about the complaint on the FSF's blog.


Anonymous Matt Aslett said...

Hi Dave,

Thanks for the mention. I actually agree with you that sometimes industry advocates get carried away with accentuating positive behaviour and that we should be careful to be accurate, but I also think we should be careful not to be overly critical (and I did try to make it clear that Savio started the name-calling ;-)

I laughed when I saw the news about the FSF's legal claims given our assumptions, although best not to jump to conclusions - innocent until proven guilty and all that.


Fri Dec 12, 01:19:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Dave Roberts said...

Matt, yes I agree with your comment about "innocent until proven guilty." That's why I used the language I did ("...appears to be in question"). At this point, I don't know much about the suit other than what is reported in at the FSF site. I'll be interested to see any response by Cisco and further analysis by others in the industry.

Fri Dec 12, 09:56:00 AM 2008  

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