I spent the last decade working in the IT departments of large multi-national corporations. Over that decade I have seen the view of F/OSS slowly change from one of misunderstanding and fear to one of acceptance and appreciation. While most large companies now use F/OSS, very few give back anything. In fact, most go one step further, and make all employees sign very restrictive agreements giving the company complete ownership of any ideas, copywritable works, or inventions produced by the employees during their tenure with the company. This pretty much precludes the employees from participating in any F/OSS project without permission from their employer. Any unapproved participation could put an encumbrance on the project and potential subject it to litigation.
My last employer was very enthusiastic about using F/OSS, even repeating the mantra, “Is an open source alternative available?”, anytime a software purchase was suggested. When it came time to give back, however, requests fell on deaf ears. It’s not that the IT management did not want to give back to the community. In fact, they realized the great benefit that they were getting and wanted to support F/OSS, but were always overridden by the legal department. The legal department does not understand/trust the GPL, so it always says no. No lawyer will ever be fired for saying no to to potential liability.
This all boils down to a couple of big problems for F/OSS: There are many improvements and changes being made to the software that are not being added back and the needs and ideas of a very large group of users are missing from the community. F/OSS ends up directing a larger portion of their development efforts to college students, gamers, and hackers running servers in their basements (I am now the later).
Why is this all important enough for this rambling diatribe? Because, I want the F/OSS revolution to succeed, and we need all the community involved or we become marginalized. The Ubuntu Linux distribution is a step in the right direction, but we have farther to go. It involves educating lawyers, and listening to users that aren’t part of the cool crowd. I’ve thought this for years, but finally I’m free to speak, and free to contribute.