Posted by: commonsresource | June 11, 2010

They don’t make villains like they used to – and it’s great news for the world of open source software!

When I was a child, heroes were heroes and villains were villains. It was never difficult for me to sort the good from the bad on my favourite Spiderman and Bugs Bunny & The Roadrunner shows (even though I never did manage to get into the mind of that coyote!) The movies that I watched often used simple conventions like the black cowboy hat and the white cowboy hat to clearly separate the hero from the villain.

After taking in the Ironman2 movie and the final episode of 24 a few weeks back, it became increasingly clear that the new world of morally ambiguous players is a challenging and somewhat disturbing place for me.  While my work as a technology lawyer constantly exposes me to a lot of grey, I am often nostalgic for those simpler days of black cowboy hats and white cowboy hats.

When I reflect on the evolving commons sourcing and open source software world, I see parallel changes in that space.  What began as a simple “cold war” era of open source software vs. commercial software slightly shifted to an era in which black cowboy hats or white cowboy hats (or red hats!) were assigned to commercial software companies.  For example, the open source world warmly embraced IBM as its corporate patron saint while it continued to paint Microsoft as the arch-enemy of the open source software world.

In the current era, we are dealing with a host of morally ambiguous open source and commercial software players.  In the case of IBM, we can look at its interaction with TurboHercules which I have discussed in my three part Big Blue series of posts. What is more striking than the conduct of IBM is the extent to which members of the open source community rallied to IBM’s defense for conduct that is, at the very least, questionable. (The Calling IBM To Account Is Not Judging post by Simon Phipps on his Wild Webmink blog explores this issue very well.)

On the other hand we have Microsoft (discussed in my nine part MicrOSoft series of posts) which is being consistently slammed for conduct and contributions to the open source community that are unquestionably good.  I have been using the term MicrOSoft in my posts to signal that OS (Open Source) is actually part of its name and have been using my posts to point out and even celebrate some of the great things that the MicrOSoft is now doing in the open source software space.

Somewhere in the middle between IBM and Microsoft, we find Apple (which, according to much of the open source community, is jockeying for number 1 villain status!) and Google (which seems well advanced in the canonization process to become the new corporate patron saint of open source software!) This leads, in the case of Apple, to curious posts such as Open Source Developers Should Thank Apple? Did The Police Thank The Mafia?Why does the Open Source Community love Apple?, and Apple is Open Source’s sworn enemy. It leads, in the case of Google, to very little criticism and much praise.

While it is tempting to focus on the tainted hero, all of us have always known in our hearts that our heros, just like ourselves, have flaws. What we have been far less aware of is that our villains sometimes have powerful redeeming qualities. As I wrote in my MicrOSoft pt. 8 – Joomla! Contributor Agreement signed post back in late April:

I am reminded of the time that a convicted murderer, with my father-in-law as his community escort, stayed at our house on an overnight pass from prison to visit with his brother in our city. While many of my peers reacted in horror when they heard, all of us, including our guest, had a very good nights sleep. While Microsoft does carry a number of serious black marks on its open source software record, I think that the company truly deserves a second chance and is making a number of significant steps in the right direction. I, for one, celebrate this Joomla! development and I certainly won’t be losing any sleep over it!

As Glyn Moody commented in response to my MicrOSoft pt. 5 – Open about becoming open? post in early April “I think Microsoft certainly deserves credit for that, but it’s also a reflection of the power of the idea of openness today: it’s increasingly hard to defend a non-open position.’

In fact, Glyn’s insightful comment (and my convicted prisoner story) dovetail rather well with Umair Haque’s The Case for Being Disruptively Good post on his Harvard Business Review guest blog. While I can’t possibly do justice to Umair’s wonderful post (which merits a reading and a cherishing of every word!), the gist of his argument is that “Today’s organizations are subject to a new range of forces that amplify the costs of evil and the benefits of good” due to the combined impact of “Haque’s Law” [“In a hyperconnected world, the costs of evil explode”] and the forces that are combining in  incentive drivers that drive organizations to do more good.  Umair pens these words near the end of his post:  “economic (r)evolution has always been about doing more good, and less bad.”

In closing, they certainly don’t make villains like they used to. And this is great news for the world of open source software that bodes very well for the future of commons sourcing!


  1. […] a path to liberty”.  Simon’s observation, which has an interesting interplay with my Villain post from yesterday,  is followed by his offer of “an opportunity to be part of the solution […]

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