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Editor’s note: Russ McGuire is the online director of Business Reform Magazine. Each issue of Business Reform features practical advice on operating successfully in business while glorifying God.
I’ve been wanting to write this article for several months. Since I began writing this column at the beginning of the year – examining the strategic issues in technology through a lens that’s founded in a Christian worldview – the open source movement has frequently been central to strategic issues in technology industries. Early this year, I received a note from a reader attacking open source, and specifically Linux, from a proclaimed Christian perspective. This reader equated the open source movement to socialism and claimed that Microsoft products were essential to the spread of the gospel. This obviously challenged me to more deeply consider these claims.
In general, my sense has been that open source is “good.” What I’ve had to question is whether that sense is driven by my selfishness – i.e. if I can get something without paying for it, that’s good for me. Or is there a deeper sense of the “rightness” of the open source movement. In trying to justify my opinion, I naturally considered the early New Testament church. As described in Acts 4:32 “And the congregation of those who believe were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them.” Does this mean that the early church was socialistic?
Before I get too far, let me back up and explain how the open source movement generally works. I say “generally” because there isn’t a governing body to dictate how so-called “open source” projects must operate, but there is a general commonality to them.
The one common theme that defines an open source “product” is that its “source” is “open.” In other words, the actual lines of programming code that make up the product are available to anyone who wants them. Almost always, the source code is published on the Internet and can be downloaded without having to sign a non-disclosure agreement or pay a fee. In fact, most open source products are distributed under a software license called the GNU Public License (GPL) or some variant based on the GPL. GNU is a recursive acronym standing for “GNU’s Not Unix” (techies can be weird…) and is an open source project associated with the Free Software Foundation. The GPL not only gives anyone the legal permission to copy, distribute, and modify the software, but requires that anyone distributing the software (either in original or modified form) must do so under the same terms.
The GPL explicitly allows for individuals or companies to charge a reasonable fee to provide the software, and to charge fees for supporting and servicing open source software. A number of companies, most notably IBM and Red Hat, have built very successful businesses around these revenue-producing opportunities. The open source community celebrates the financial success of these companies and hopes for more. So, open source, both in theory and in practice is neither anti-corporate nor anti-profit.
Many open source projects, including Linux and virtually all of the ones having a significant impact on the computing world, are very broad based projects made up of dozens or even hundreds of individuals all contributing to the success of the project. In most cases, these individuals are volunteering their time free of charge. In some cases, many of the individuals involved hope to develop successful businesses distributing and supporting the completed project, but usually that is more “mental self-justification” for the time they are committing to the project, rather than the passion that is driving them.
Although these developers aren’t joined together by corporate employment, that doesn’t mean that open source projects are characterized by anarchy. Large projects have well defined leadership for the overall project and sub-projects, and well defined project schedules. Since the developers are both organizationally and geographically distributed, documentation is probably more important to open source projects than in the corporate world. As with any software product, the most successful projects tend to be the ones that are exceptionally well managed.
All of this contrasts dramatically with how software products have traditionally been developed. Historically, a new software product would be developed by employees or contractors of a single company. That company would own all rights to the software and would only license the use of the software to qualified customers who had paid (typically high) licensing fees. The granted license would be extremely limited, usually to be run on a single computer by a single user. The standard license would not allow copying, distribution, or modification of the software. A highly successful software product might be licensed for copying and distribution to a very carefully selected handful of distributors. In rare cases, a partner might be chosen for joint development of new capabilities, in which case a very restrictive license to modify the software may be granted. Except in the last case of joint development partners, none of the licensees would ever be allowed to see the source code – they would only receive the binary files – after the source code has been “compiled” and “linked” down to the ones and zeros that the target computers could understand.
So – back to the fundamental question – is the attitude of the open source movement socialistic and therefore something to be feared, perhaps even stopped? This is the question that I’ve struggled with for months.
Last week, as I was listening to Dennis Peacocke’s “Freedom Series” tapes, the answer became much clearer and I finally found the framework for answering this question with confidence.
So-called “experts” may find fault with Dennis’ definitions, but I found them very helpful.
- “Socialism has one supreme goal: to make everyone dependent on the state and to eliminate risk.”
- “Capitalism has one supreme goal and that is profit.”
- “Kingdom economics is focused on empowering people to be who God has created them to be.”
Dennis goes on to say that a focus on kingdom economics will be blessed and will result in wealth. In his book Doing Business God’s Way, Dennis points to Sam Walton of Wal-Mart as an example of someone focused on empowering people to build a successful and profitable business.
Given these definitions, the open source model does not follow socialism. It has nothing to do with making people dependent on the state – on the contrary, the open software model is focused on freedom from the types of legal constraints often imposed by the state.
The reason people get bent out of shape about Linux and open source and claim it is socialistic is because it also clearly does not follow capitalism. It does not have the primary goal of creating profit. Microsoft’s primary goal is to create profit. The SCO Group’s primary goal is to create profit. Oracle’s primary goal is to create profit. PeopleSoft’s primary goal is to create profit. The people working on Linux do not have a primary goal of creating profit – and that makes lots of people very uncomfortable.
In fact, the open source movement may come closer to God’s model for operating a business than anything in the corporate world! Jesus modeled this to His disciples and He explained it to them shortly before his arrest: “No longer do I call you slaves [he uses a business relationship term], for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends… You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit.” (John 15:15-16).
However, even though the open source movement is not focused on profit, companies built to distribute and support open source products can be profitable. And I would even argue that, if those companies focus on doing business God’s way, God will bless them with great wealth!
So, obviously, in conclusion, I don’t believe that the open source movement is socialistic. I don’t believe that it’s inherently evil or should be “stopped.” In fact, I’m pretty excited about what God may be doing through the open source movement, whether or not those developers can even see His hand in it!
Russ McGuire is Online Director for Business Reform. Prior to joining Business
Reform, Mr. McGuire spent over twenty years in technology industries, performing various roles from writing mission critical software for the nuclear power and defense industries to developing core business strategies in the telecom industry. Mr. McGuire is currently focused on helping businesspeople apply God’s eternal truths to their real-world business challenges through Business Reform’s online services. He can be reached at RMcGuire@businessreform.com.