On Microsoft’s Journey

Nearly a decade on from my original journey model, how far has Microsoft really come? Are they now aligned with their peers?

A decade ago, I wrote about the journey corporations take as they move from treating open source as a threat to embracing software freedom as a corporate philosophy within their business strategy. It wasn’t a perfect model, but it had plenty of resonance for me and many others at the time. The steps were:

  1. Open source as enemy – Attacking and ridiculing the idea of software freedom.
  2. Damage containment – Framing isolated actions as proof of support for the idea while diminishing other projects.
  3. Embrace and extend – Framing larger strategies as proof of embrace while mapping the semantics to deal with inconvenient dissonance.
  4. A change of executive direction – new leadership or direction results in executive air-cover.
  5. Exploratory opening – As business units adapt models, practical barriers to community are removed.
  6. General opening – Projects are expected to switch to open source, exceptions need justifying.
  7. Embrace of software freedom – software freedom is a core company philosophy expressed in all actions.

At the time in 2011, Microsoft was still mostly in stage 1 of the model, with a few groups at stages 2 and 3 and constant turnover of the person hired to be the front-person for open source. It even extended to standards – I had watched as Microsoft, unable to see how to embrace ODF and win through collaboration, instead burned the reputation of ECMA and ISO forcing through OOXML and creating an eternal maintenance burden for themselves.

Over the following decade, they have gradually progressed along the line to embracing software freedom, reaching a bold stage 4 when Satya Nadella was appointed and stage 5 with the partnership with Red Hat. With the acquisition of Github they seemed likely to have reached stage 6, especially when they joined OIN as I’d long proposed, but for me the final confirmation was the comment by Microsoft president Brad Smith:

“Microsoft was on the wrong side of history when open source exploded at the beginning of the century, and I can say that about me personally,”

Brad Smith, cited by The Verge

Of course, the reality is not the words spoken at media-friendly events but the actions taken in private (as I am currently finding with big players in the mobile industry). In many ways, Microsoft was the most direct and honest of the big technology-sector players a decade ago. IBM was busy monetising software patents in private while lauding openness and sharing in public; Oracle was declaring its commitment to openness and even taking the word for the name of its developer conference while doubling down on lock-in.

Microsoft just stuck to the obvious truth that they hated Linux — and by association the whole open source movement — and said it openly. Behind the scenes, all the tech businesses were taking what they could, contributing what they had to and attacking what they couldn’t, but Microsoft was honest about it. That honesty bought them deep hatred from some advocates that even today is unquenchable despite the growing evidence it’s residual bigotry. My concern for those who say they still can’t trust Microsoft now is more that they believe that can trust its peers.

So does this change mean they have really progressed to stage 6? Yes, I think it does, even if there are residual pockets of the old Microsoft. The reality of their cloud strategy and the market it addresses has made the softer tactics of adoption, engagement and collaboration outweigh fierce closed competitive brilliance and embrace-extend-extinguish as their weapons of choice.

Speaking to friends who now find themselves at Microsoft and at Github, it’s clear that today’s Microsoft is not the same company that used to burn out a new open source front-man every two years. This Microsoft wants to collaborate, to lead as a member rather than as an entryist, to do it right rather than just make it look OK. The new blood in Azure and Github has been given permission to tell the old guard to make the new strategy succeed or be wound up, and it’s working. Looks like it’s so effective that IBM wants to copy it.

So why have I not ranked them at stage 7 yet? I’m still not convinced they are there. The test for stage 7 is whether a company picks winning strategies that advance the liberties of others, even if they are not the biggest wins. Given two open source strategies, one that embodies software freedom for others and one that makes Microsoft apparently win more, I wait to be convinced they would stand up for the liberties of others over advantaging Microsoft. Maybe it’s already happening and I just haven’t noticed – do tell me! I am pretty sure an opportunity will come along soon if it isn’t.

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Settling Scores With Giants

A UK national newspaper approached me to write an opinion piece about the copyright directive vote today, at short notice. When I asked to be paid for my work, they suddenly decided to just treat it as a “written interview”. Seems wanting to see authors paid is only an issue when they’re not the ones paying. I stopped as soon as I heard, but already had a rough unpolished draft so – here it is.

 

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There’s a vote in Strasbourg this week about copyright rules. The pretext is an update of the original 18 year old copyright directive to make it fit for the Internet age. But there’s something strange going on, fuelled by legions of lobbyists paid with old money. The thinking behind the copyright directive will only #fixcopyright for the dragons of content who want to harm the giants of tech. That “dragons vs giants” conflict will just leave the rest of us smaller creatives trampled, burned –  and unpaid.

Change Due

There’s no doubt that we need to revisit copyright for the digital age and make some adjustments to the rules. When the original directive was negotiated in the 90s the Internet as we know it was in its infancy. But in the midst of all the necessary change, some dark forces have been at work to settle scores with the young upstarts of the Internet age — with no concern for who else gets hurt in the process.

I make part of my living writing and am a published author, so I have the greatest respect for the idea that people who create things should be paid for their work. I’ve also spent my career in the software industry, with a special interest in Open Source Free Software — the community-collaborative approach that’s built the software which today runs the world. Success there depends entirely on copyright law, so you’d expect me to be a massive fan – and I am.

There are many ways to use the rights which creators get to their work. Sometimes simply being paid by other people to enjoy the work is the answer; I am very keen on any publisher paying me to write this for you, for example (narrator: they didn’t)! But there are other approaches.

If I want to collaborate with a group of people to make the computer software that runs my web site, I may prefer to make the use of my copyrighted code freely available to the other people sharing the work with me, and give them the freedom to improve it and share their work with others too. Doing that means I can easily work with the best programmers in all the different companies that use the software. I’ve not “given it away” — I get value from my copyright by sharing their innovation and maintenance of the software.

I might also prefer to use my copyright in my writing (or if I were a musician, in my music) to excite new readers and listeners who wouldn’t pay for what they don’t know. As publisher Tim O’Reilly once said, “The problem for most artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.” I might choose to make my book or music available freely for download to build a fan base that will buy printed versions or attend concerts. People who did that wouldn’t be “pirates” but prospects.

Not just money for the middle man

So here’s the problem with what’s going on with the copyright directive. It doesn’t recognise that any of these alternative approaches to using copyright exist. The background thinking is infused with the views of a world where only corporations care about copyright, citizens only consume it and any other behaviour must therefore be wrong. It lacks any viable understanding of other worlds – such as mine – where copyright is freely licensed to enable valuable returns like developer collaboration, consumer network effects, small artist exposure and new author visibility. Instead its old-world thinking is anxious to preserve the significant funds skimmed off by the middle men of publishing.

It’s thinking that’s not too worried about most of the actual creators – just the big-money ones. They’re keen to preserve a retired superstar’s pension but not too bothered about my income, because only one of those makes the publisher rich.

The Dark Arts

It’s worse than just self preservation though. The proposed effects swing dramatically in the opposite direction. Whoever the dark fingers pulling the strings are, they want to shut down any and all new avenues of creativity.

  • Want to link to a web site? The proposals want you to negotiate a copyright license first (article 11).
  • Want to host writers on your web page? The proposals want to assume everything uploaded is pirated until proven otherwise (article 13).
  • Using open source software on your web site? The proposals can be understood to open you to high compliance and liability costs (article 13).
  • Doing research for a project? Text and data mining may be restricted to formal institutions (article 3).

All these – and many more – are being gleefully pursued in the name of stifling Google and Facebook, but because they arose in minds imbued with the business norms of the industrial revolution, they have no concept that individual citizens might be impacted as well. They accuse people like me of being “paid by GAFA” to oppose them, rather than recognising their lobbying tramples on our work.

The process at the Parliament is only half of the activity – the European Commission also has a set of proposals it wants to see implemented. It’s quite hard to say who exactly is behind each specific friendly-fire-prone measure on both sides. The text in Parliament is emerging in a constant flurry of drafts and amendments that make it impossible for a normal person to keep track. Even the few people working to defang these proposals in Brussels are struggling to find what text will actually appear in front of the Parliament until it’s too late.

But more ominously, there are insiders supporting the copyright extremists in both places. The official Twitter accounts of a number of Commission bodies have been pumping out partisan misinformation throughout the process, and representatives of the Commission have been remarkably dismissive of concerns, preferring to wave them away as the work of the “tech giants” with no regard for the “content dragons” whose paws seem to occupy every puppet that pushes back at me.

It’s Not Over

That’s why I will remain concerned whatever happens in Strasbourg this week, even though the Parliament vote is just a step in a longer process. The next stage after the Parliament decides on its goals will be “trilogues” as the Parliament, Commission and Council meet to harmonise their respective proposals. Given the propensity of insiders to allow their thinking to be dominated by the “content dragons” and to dismiss the concerns of new model pioneers like myself as “just the tech giants trying to derail us” I have great fear that we’ll see a repeat of GDPR here. That showed us measures supposedly protecting European citizens actually inflicting extensive collateral damage on small innovators while hardly inconveniencing the multinational giants who were supposedly in the cross-hairs. When dragons settle scores with giants, it’s the little people who get trampled and burned.

 

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Unknown Others

Open Source is for you, yes. But it’s also for unknown others.

A cow pulls a lawnmower on the Rajpath in New Delhi

Being close to an open source project, it’s easy to imagine that everyone sees the project the way you and your fellow community members do. This especially applies to the corporate sponsors of a single-company project; anticipating use by competitors they often want to apply controls to who can use the code.  Continue reading

The Universal Donor

It’s not enough for you to have the rights you need; your community needs the same rights.

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A few people reacted negatively to my article on why Public Domain software is broadly unsuitable for inclusion in a community open source project. Most argued that because public domain gave them the rights they need where they live (mostly the USA), I should not say it was wrong to use it.  Continue reading

20 Years And Counting

The third decade of open source software starts in February 2018. How did it rise to dominance, and what’s next?

The Journey

20 years ago, in February 1998, the term “open source” was first applied to software, Soon afterwards, the Open Source Definition was created and the seeds that became the Open Source Initiative (OSI) were sown. As the OSD’s author Bruce Perens relates,

“Open Source” is the proper name of a campaign to promote the pre-existing concept of Free Software to business, and to certify licenses to a rule set.

Continue reading

Can PatentLeft Save Us?

Is it possible to hack the patent system to make patents unusable in the tech industry, like copyleft hacked patent law?

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The word “copyleft” arises from a clever hack by Richard Stallman who used the laws relating to copyright — a statutory device to incent creativity by granting limited monopolies to creators — to create a world where creators are incented to share instead of monopolise their work.  Continue reading

Is Open Yet Closed Still OK?

In these days of code that no single mind can grasp, it’s hard to see how software freedom is present when there’s no realistic community access to source code.

Copycat Tree

In the early days of Free Software, it was a safe assumption that anyone using a computer had coding skills of some sort — even if only for shell scripts. As a consequence, many advocates of Free Software, despite a strong focus on user freedoms, had a high tolerance for software that made source available under free terms without providing other access to the project, especially in the days when that meant tapes by mail.  Continue reading

Cause, Effect and License Choice

Choosing between licenses – even copyleft vs non-reciprocal – is less important than ensuring everyone has equal rights & responsibilities.

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I’m often asked which open source licence is best for businesses who want to release a project as open source. Usually behind the question the issue is a desire for corporate control somewhere in the organisation. This tends to flow from a conviction the only way a business can succeed is by keeping some sort of copyright (or patent) control that creates an artificial scarcity.  Continue reading

Permission In Advance

Open source ensures developers already have permission to innovate and don’t need to ask first.

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If you want your code to be open source, it needs an OSI-approved copyright license. Code with no license to the copyright isn’t open source. But project success needs more than just an OSI-approved license — it needs “permission in advance” for every developer and deployer. Continue reading

Compliance Is Not Just For Copyleft

The cost of compliance may not just be a copyleft issue now we understand how to work with the GPL.

Aerial view of a canyon meandering

Even before Christoph Hellwig (backed by the Software Freedom Conservancy) started his suit to enforce his copyright claims against VMWare, there was a great deal of fear of the GPL in particular and copyleft licensing in general among corporate lawyers, and hence among their executive clients.  Continue reading