Dignitaries from the open source and venture capital communities serving on a panel Tuesday evening tossed around perspectives on building a business in open source, but essentially were in agreement about the potential negative effects of patents on open source projects.
Leveraging open source for commercial purposes runs the gauntlet from selling support services for pure open source products to using code from open source projects in commercial ventures, panelists said at a session of the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab here entitled, "Bringing Great Open Source Ideas to Market."
Companies such as IBM and Tivo use Linux in their commercial projects, said Patrick McGovern, director of SourceForge. "As (far as) as a pure play open source program (on which to base a business), there's not a lot of instances that I, at least, can think of," McGovern said.
Getting funding for an open source project, such as JBoss, requires building a vibrant community, McGovern said. "It takes a lot of work to get that visibility," he said.
Mitchell Baker, who holds the title of Chief Lizard Wrangler at the Mozilla Foundation, and Marc Fleury, chairman and CEO of JBoss, concurred. "You have to be solving a problem," Baker said. "For someone to invest, you have to have something of interest and that comes back to the critical mass (factor)."
"The critical event is critical mass," Fleury said. "Once you have that, the VC (venture capital) play becomes possible," said Fleury. Luck and support for standards also helps, he said.
Panelists also believed that open source is good for the software community in general. "If it's good for the customer, it's good for the industry, because sooner or later the customer is driving the industry," said Douglas Leone, partner at Sequoia Capital.
On patents, panelists were almost in total agreement about the problems that patenting software can cause. Citing his background in physics, Fleury said patents are beneficial for developments in that particular field to protect return on investments. "In the case of software, though, I am growing quite convinced that they will ultimately grow to be quite detrimental," he said.
Patents could provide an "arms race" capable of possibly destroying the industry, said Fleury. He noted that Sun Microsystems recently lost a patent lawsuit to Kodak and deciding to pay up rather than continue fighting.
"I think patents are horrible," Leone said. "They're meant to stall, they're meant to intimidate."
Geir Magnusson, a director of the Apache Software Foundation and vice president of products at Gluecode, said a solution could be open patents, similar to how developers have access to open source.
"If we're going to protect other kinds of inventions (with patents), I think software is an invention," Magnusson said.