Ethics and Law in New Media/In Search of Middle Ground: Hybrid Approaches

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Looking for a middle way[edit]

Starting from the mid-90s, free and open-source software gradually gained visibility in the business world. An important factor was the LAMP platform (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP/Perl/Python) which formed around 1995 and gave businesses the chance to build inexpensive, yet full-featured network servers for only a fraction of costs compared to proprietary solutions offered by IBM, Sun, HP and others (later also Microsoft). Yet in many cases, businesses remained wary of the new model, feeling that "free" meant "unsupported" or even "unprofessional". The uncompromising rhetoric of the Free Software Foundation (often seeing all non-free software as a breach of ethic) did not help to solve the problem either.

The Freeware Summit (later called Open Source Summit, it further evolved into the OSCON) in 1996, the publication of Eric S. Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar and subsequent emergence of the term "open source" (as opposed to "free software") strived not only to solve the ambiguity of "free" but also to convince business people that the new model is not incompatible with business. It should be noted that the FSF camp does not rule out business in software, but they are radically against the proprietary mode - but in the world where a majority of large business players have been deeply immersed to the proprietary model for a long time, it may be difficult to understand. The foundation document of the OSS movement, the Open Source Definition, while stating much in common with the FSF, does refrain from condemning the proprietary models and seems to be written in a style that is more compatible with the traditional licensing. For the OSS movement, the open source is not an ethical category, but a practically superior way of doing things. And as such, it is possible to find more common ground with other models (on the other hand, there have also been cases where the "orthodox" views of the FSF seem to be more appropriate).

Parallel developments[edit]

Some open source companies have already a long experience with the "loss leader"-type model - having an established, supported proprietary version of a software product, which is seconded by a community-based, free cousin. Interestingly enough, in many cases (especially in Linux distributions) the commercial product is also freely licensed.

Red Hat (RHEL vs Fedora)[edit]

Red Hat is one of the most successful open-source based companies. Also, this is the sole business model for them (compared to e.g. Sun who, although a prominent player in open source, has many closed source projects as well). Initially, their business model focused on offering support services on a single system, the Red Hat Linux. Since 2002, they have had two systems, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (proprietary with free source code - this has led to emergence of "source-compatible" free distros like CentOS, WhiteBox and others) and Fedora. The latter serves as a testbed, idea generator and feedback collector as well as attracts new users - e.g. students "grown up" on free Fedora may later choose the supported RHEL for their company.

The Red Hat model is hybrid in even two ways - first, it uses both the "pure" know-how based business model of open source and a mixed proprietary model. Second, even the RHEL model is a kind of cross between classic "Microsoft-style" proprietary software and open source, due to keeping the source packages freely available under the GPL.

Novell (SLES vs OpenSuse)[edit]

Novell followed Red Hat to use a similar model after obtaining SUSE Linux in 2003. Earlier, SUSE had attempted to generate revenue by releasing new versions to free download only after a couple of months (during which it was only available for purchase). After the merge, Novell copied the Red Hat model by creating SUSE LInux Enterprise Server and Desktop as an established system and OpenSUSE as a community distribution. Unlike Fedora, OpenSUSE is also available for purchase as a "boxed" product.

Sun (Solaris vs OpenSolaris, StarOffice vs[edit]

In 1999, Sun obtained the promising German office software package StarOffice. The next year, the company created a free offshoot called (NB! The domain ending must be added due to OpenOffice being someone else's trademark). In a similar way to Red Hat, OO.o was to attract users and developers, StarOffice added support plus some nonvital components (more fonts, cliparts, some filters).

Solaris was developed as Sun's main Unix version in 1992 and was a proprietary product by nature. However, the emergence of free Unixes (many variants of Linux and BSD) brought a significant number of free software to Solaris. In 2004 the OpenSolaris project was launched which blurred the line even further.

Dual Licenses[edit]

As an author is free to choose license for his/her creation, it is possible to use multiple licenses as well, leaving the choice on the customer. As open source became to be known in the business world, some companies have been trying to release a software both as open source and a proprietary product. In this case, the customer must decide whether

  • to use the software under the free license - this allows inexpensive deployment, but may restrict some usage (which can be incompatible with e.g. GPLv3) and may also demand releasing all published modifications under the same license.
  • to purchase a proprietary license - the deployment becomes more costly, but the usage is mostly subject to the license agreement, modifications (if allowed by license) will typically be the property of the licensee.


A part of the LAMP platform, launched in 1995 by a Swedish company and is still controlled by them (although the company itself is affiliated with Sun nowadays, which in turn was bought by Oracle). They offer various custom solution (in a way similar to other open source based companies - most of all the MySQL Enterprise which is a supported commercial subscription service), but their MySQL Server is available both under a proprietary license and GPL (the proprietary license is available for free for those Enterprise clients who cannot use GPL).

Besides the server, they also offer some tools which are only available to the Enterprise clients.


A new start-up company chaired by a founder of the Open Source Initiative, Bruce Perens. Due to the initial stage, they have not released any software yet. What is interesting however is their pledge-based mechanism of including user contributions to the main software base.

See the Heather Meeker's article in References for more case studies.

MS Shared Source: a failure or a step to the right direction?[edit]

In 2007 Microsoft announced its Shared Source program, which allowed to share the source code of some software with some parties who passed the selection criteria. At first the initiative was promoted as straightforward alternative to open source, while in reality the "sharing" was extremely limited. Still, later Microsoft compiled 5 licenses with different grades of freedom (a little into the vein of Creative Commons) - two of which passed the OSI criteria of open source, and the least restrictive Microsoft Public License was even accepted as a GPL3-compatible free software license by FSF (the other one was also accepted but deemed incompatible with GPL).

Yet, there is a lot of criticism and warnings. The corporation has a long history of deception and unfair play, which makes others wary (this is partially a reason why a big part of the free software community is still distrustful and even hostile towards the company). In a bit similar problem with Creative Commons, there is a danger to lump all the different licences together as "Shared Source" (which by itself is seen to be a dangerous term due to apparent similarity to "open source", yet having different nature). The more restrictive SS licenses are also seen as potential "IP bombs" which may cause later litigation on careless users, plus they tie the users to Microsoft platforms.

So it remains to be seen if Microsoft is really attempting to learn to play nice with others or is it just another clever way of destroying competition.

Creative Commons: BY-NC-SA and BY-NC-ND[edit]

Used mainly for other content than software, the whole Creative Commons system with its slogan "some rights reserved" is a hybrid approach between the rigid copyright and the "free world". Especially the non-commercial licenses are designed to quiet the nervous worrying of many authors who fear "stealing" of their work. While criticised by some hardcore "freedom fighters", they still seem to have played an important part in promoting free licenses (a quite good example is the comparison of various CC licenses in Flickr).


Food for Thought[edit]

  • Try to position yourself on the "Free vs Proprietary" scale. What would you expect from a hybrid licensing scheme?
  • What is your impression about the MS Shared Source?

To Do[edit]

  • Read at least Chapter 2 (which is a kind of short summary of the treatise) of The Case for Copyright Reform by Rick Falkvinge and Christian Engström. Write an opinion.