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Perens: IT pros must lobby for open-source

Open-source pioneer Bruce Perens urges IT managers to lobby for the protection of open-source software from the infringing threat of software patents and legal liability.

IT pros, do you want open-source software (OSS) developer Bruce Perens to lose his house and car? If not, then speak up! Perens believes that IT managers have the clout to make their vendors help protect open-source software and its developers. As an open-source pioneer, Perens wrote the opening salvo in the OSS movement: "The Open Source Definition." He has created and worked on many open-source advocacy teams, including Open Source Initiative, the Linux Standard Base, Software in the Public Interest Inc., and No-Code International. He persuaded Prentice Hall PTR publishers to put out a series of books about open-source technologies, and he serves as series editor. Now it's time for corporate IT managers to put on their evangelical robes, Perens said. In a one-on-one interview with, he explained why it's the right time and high time for IT pros to become lobbyists.

Why do you think that corporate IT managers should act as lobbyists, persuading major vendors to support open-source?

Perens: It is in IS managers' interest for open-source software to remain viable. The risk is for the entire industry, from top to bottom. Intellectual property issues will affect small and medium-sized businesses just as much as large companies. It's time for the open-source community to push back. IBM and HP are doing great business for Linux and open-source software, but we need their help. So we need corporate IS managers to talk with them about these issues.

What's the biggest risk to the continued viability of open-source software?

Perens: Software patents. Open-source developers are happy to keep writing software, but we do need companies like IBM and HP that have been our friends to help us with the issues surrounding software patents. I have developed OSS independently, on my own time. I am at risk, technically, from software patent holders. I think we need some change there. I would prefer not to lose my house, my car, due to a legal action against me.

Open-source developers and companies that use open-source software will be at risk of being sued by companies that acquire patents and think that [their patents] apply to some piece of Linux and/or open-source software. We've seen a number of patents and suits relating to those patents recently where we're pretty sure they aren't inventions.

For example, there's a case about [an e-mail device] that's wireless. We know that radio hams had wireless e-mails in the very early 1980s, and what has been patented is not an invention. Imagine if hundreds of patents of software [originally created as open-source software, and then tweaked by the patent applicant, were created]. Imagine them motivated by opponents to open-source, like Microsoft. Who's to protect the open-source developers from being sued by those holding these patents?

How will Linux software developers and commercial vendors protect themselves?

Perens: Red Hat's $1 million contribution to a legal defense fund for open-source developers and vendors is a nice gesture. [Studies have shown, however, that] defending just one patent infringement suit takes about $2 million.

As a kind of insurance (and for other reasons), some Linux distributions may come to be owned by major vendors like IBM, HP, etc. I would hate for that to happen, because small-medium businesses would feel that -- to be protected -- they would have nowhere else to turn for a Linux distribution. Yet businesses go to open-source because they want to get away from lock-in, including service lock-in. [Buying distributions bundled with systems and service] is rather outside of the spirit of open-source because it locks you in.

I've worked for years on a Linux distribution called Debian. Debian is not well accepted in business, because we don't offer our own support. But Debian will still be around and will not be for sale.

Beyond your advice on the legal front, could you offer IT shops some insights on new technologies? What Linux technologies should IT managers be examining now?

Perens: A year ago, I wrote about how the Linux desktop was still coming. In 2003, the Linux desktop is here. Now, say, you're a secretary, what do you do with Microsoft Office? You use a word processor, a Web browser, and maybe a spreadsheet. So 80% of these people don't need specialized software. We can satisfy them now with open-source software. All the ingredients are ready.

On the bleeding edge, I've heard that Texas Instruments has been hiring a bunch of Linux folks. I expect to see more connected devices with embedded Linux for the enterprise user, giving them the opportunity to take their office applications with them anywhere.

Now, in the realm of science fiction technologies: Why are people still using GUIs? Why do you have to look at your computer? We have speech recognition with wide vocabularies so that your computer can understand what you say. We have very nice programs that can talk. So, I'd like to see more development of computers as your invisible friend that stays in your office and talks to you wherever you are.

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