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Open Source vs Intellectual Property Misconceptions

The other day, while flying home, I picked up a copy of the Harvard Business Review (HBR).  The cover had a teaser about an Open Source strategy article, so I thought they might have something interesting to say.

The article was a (fake) case study* about a CEO worried about Open Source stealing the IP of her company.   Great.   Here was HBR repeating one of the greatest falsehoods about Open Source, that it destroys intellectual property.   It went downhill from there, descending into a ‘all these hackers are stealing my stuff’ manifesto.

Open Source ‘destroys’ IP has become one of those great mis-conceptions of the software world and it’s a shame, really.   Because, rather than destroy IP, it actually strengthens it, much in the same way that patents do.   Like patents, open source exposes the inner workings of something, but it sets usage rules around it, aka a license.   In open source software, the basis for these licensing rights largely emerges from the rights of the copyright holder to sub-license a work, a core feature of intellectual property and most legal systems.

What open source attempts to achieve is largely the same as the patent system, to allow everyone to understand the way something was done.   This essential knowledge transfer is at the core of open source and it gives everyone equal opportunity to view this knowledge.   BTW, I’m sure that someone, somewhere is still horrified that patents allow this knowledge transfer….

The authors of the HBR piece failed to grasp this core feature of open source, instead focusing on this so called ‘destruction’ of value.   Sure, open source requires you to communicate knowledge to your users, but you do so for your own benefit as much as anything else.   Does do this make monetization of your IP more difficult?   No, not really, just different and different in ways that are much more interesting over time.   But that’s something for another blog.

* I would post a link to the article, but it’s only available for $6.50 as a PDF.  Look for the April 2008 HBR if you are interested.