WHEN I FIRST came in close contact with the open-source world in 1995, I was intrigued with what I found. Talented individuals were working hard on their own time to build new and exciting software that would eventually fuel much of the Internet.
It was exhilarating to watch. So much so that I wanted to get involved. But I saw a problem.
My employer at the time (Digital Equipment Corp., which has since been consumed by Compaq -- which soon may be ingested by Hewlett-Packard) had an employment contract similar to those currently in use by some companies. The contract essentially laid claim to every idea that passed through my head. Be it code that I produced on the job or a design for a better showerhead that might occur to me in the bathtub, my employer owned it all.
Unfortunately, DEC had no functional method to clear me for participation in an open-source project. The company knew how to lock me in with the employment contract, but when the time came to unlock it, no one seemed to have the keys.
That may have been acceptable in the mid-1990s, but it is a huge mistake today. The heart and soul of the open-source world relies on the ability of the participants to contribute code on their own time. When a corporation prevents a potential contributor from donating to open source, it harms the open-source movement -- and the company also does serious harm to itself.
Think about it: Many corporations are using open-source software, or at least contemplating using it. From full-blown Linux and BSD systems providing network services to traditional Unix systems running the Apache Web server, Sendmail, or the Squid proxy server, open source is everywhere. So by keeping your people from participating, you are limiting the development of the tools on which you rely.
Moreover, the people who contribute to the open-source movement are among the best and brightest in the industry. They are motivated by more than money; if they were not, they would never give away their software in the first place. To these people, an employment offer with a high salary that lacks permission to contribute to open source is unimpressive.
Forbidding employees to contribute to open source is essentially reducing your own talent pool. Requiring them to wear intellectual property handcuffs keeps many of the best and brightest from considering employment with your organization. Meanwhile, corporations with an enlightened open-source policy will be able to pick from the same top-notch talent you scared away. If one of those enlightened corporations happens to be your competitor, you probably won't like the results.
So develop an open-source policy for your people. You don't need to lose any intellectual property; just give your techies a simple method to get permission to participate in the movement. In the long run, it will do your company far more good than could be accomplished through heavy-handed suppression of your employees' talents.