"Leeches" -- that's how Dave Rosenberg, co-founder and former CEO of MuleSource, and now part of the founding team of RiverMuse, refers to companies that use open source technology but don't give back to the open source community. Companies like Cisco's Linksys subsidiary, whose routers rely on Linux. Companies like Amazon.com, whose Elastic Cloud Computing (EC2) service depends on Eclipse Foundation's open source offerings.
Your ear doesn't have to be pressed to the ground for long to hear angry grumblings in the open source community about leeches, vampires, or freeloaders.
[ Is the commercialization of open source eliminating the customer's advantage from access to the source code? InfoWorld's Open Sources blogger Savio Rodrigues explores the issue. ]
"The future of Eclipse is in danger," Michael Scharf, a member of the Eclipse Foundation's architecture council, said in an angry April blog post. "The problem is that there is no real pressure for companies to contribute back to the community and it is easy to use the Eclipse 'for free' for their own products. The Eclipse community should create peer pressure to prevent the freeloaders and parasites from getting away without punishment," he wrote.
Scharf likens the lack of contributions back to the community to the "tragedy of the commons," in which greedy individuals unthinkingly destroy a shared resource. And in an e-mail exchange, he put it this way: "The general mentality of the industry frustrates me; the attitude to take advantage of something like open source and not give back anything to the system."
Scharf's comments were not well received. Not only is Eclipse doing just fine, say his critics, but the whole notion of leeches and freeloaders is a relic of open source's Wild West era, when coding was a higher calling and free software a religion.
"You might call them parasites; I call them users and adopters," says Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation. "The fact that we have millions of users is what makes Eclipse commercially interesting." Indeed, when major enterprises use Eclipse, with or without contributing code back to the community, they create a market for Eclipse plug-ins and services, says Milinkovich.
Even critics acknowledge the major exceptions to enterprises' freeloading ways. For example, Rosenberg notes that Bank of America, H&R Block, and J.P. Morgan not only pay for what they use, but contribute code back to various projects.
The polarized open source "community"
It's not surprising that the discussion has become so polarized. There's long been a tension within the open source community between those who have seen it as a movement and those who believe it is a business. To be sure, the gulf between those poles isn't nearly as wide as it once was. The increasing adoption of open source by mainstream enterprises has changed the terms of the debate and bolstered the community.
"Community"? For some, that's a fighting word. "Much is made of the importance of community in open source, specifically, and in software, generally. But 'community' is perhaps the most overhyped word in software, one that doesn't deliver nearly as much value as marketing people would like you to think," Matt Asay, vice president of business development at Alfresco, said in a post earlier this year.