Open Source Mandates Ill-Advised, PFF Fellows Say
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - There are fundamental differences between open standards and open source software, and those differences must be understood by any policymaker entering the debate. So said fellows from The Progress & Freedom Foundation at a luncheon today here in Brussels. PFF President Ray Gifford and Senior Fellow James DeLong spoke to European Parliament members and staff, as well as other interested parties, at an event co-hosted by the Centre for a New Europe. The event was one of several included in PFF's first annual Digital Europe.
Interoperability can be created across a spectrum of configurations including open and closed standards and proprietary and non-proprietary standards, Gifford said. Open standards have their appeal in the market, but there are numerous examples of interoperability occurring in the market with closed standards, he said. "These closed standards should have a place at the table. The innovation incentives behind these closed standards are strong, and we should respect them." Gifford expressed dismay at the tone often found in the debate. "These are not mere morality tales where the virtuous are for openness and the vicious are for closed standards, or where non-proprietary standards are always better than proprietary ones." There is a great deal of work being done among private parties, Gifford said. "My caution is that over exuberant and premature regulatory entry into these areas is ill-advised."
DeLong said it was striking what was occurring in stakeholder talks on interoperability. He described it as "spontaneous order in cyberspace." "What's going on in these standards-setting organizations is that the people involved are working out new forms of property rights that suit their interests," DeLong said. "This seems to be a very creative thing to have happening, and something that has been very productive so far."
Both Gifford and DeLong cited difficulties in nomenclature in the debate, specifically with the word "open." "There is a key taxonomic distinction that we must always keep in mind here -- open standards and open source are not the same thing," Gifford said. Open source is one way to achieve openness of a sort, although at least as far as the General Public License (GPL) is concerned, that is a "tightly prescribed business model, in many ways as prescriptive as anything we can imagine."
"We should leave open to all other parties the liberty and freedom to work within alternate models, to achieve openness, interoperability and consumer benefits," Gifford said. "And this is where the real threat comes from open source -- its imperial ambitions." Open source "purports to be open, but in its ultimate ambition it's very prescriptive and wants to mandate that everything be open source... Governments need to be very cautious when they wade into these open standards-open source debates."
There is plenty of room in the market for open source software and it can be a sound business model for those who wish to pursue it, Gifford said. Ultimately, competition among standards and in the standards-setting process is best, Gifford said, and the market has done well in sorting out such competition. "Openness mandates or specific types of property regimes being prescribed would be folly for innovation and folly for standards processes."
The Progress & Freedom Foundation is a market-oriented think tank that studies the digital revolution and its implications for public policy. It is a 501(c)(3) research & educational organization.