Comment Tim O'Reilly is like a Burger King sandwich in that he likes things his way.
O'Reilly invited Free Software Foundation lawyer Eben Moglen to participate in a discussion about "licensing in the Web 2.0 era" at this week's OSCON. The conference organizers did their best to fix the conversation. Even though everyone laughs at O'Reilly's Web 2.0 moniker to his face, the conference promoter still takes the phrase very seriously and expects others to do the same. Moglen declined the offer.
"Tim has a television show under production where we get told in advance what we are going to say and how it will reflect Tim's underlying idea," Moglen told us. "I decided not to go with the program."
Moglen's performance turned into the stuff of legend.
Regrettably, we missed the assault. Stories needed to go out, and we assumed the chat would follow familiar, boring lines. After about ten people later asked if we caught the spectacular show, The Register contacted the OSCON audio staff to obtain a recording of the session. "No problem," they said, "It will just take a couple of minutes, but you need to get O'Reilly's permission first." O'Reilly corporate refused to release the audio, saying it would cause a slippery slope. (We're still trying to understand that one.) They, however, did add that Moglen appeared to be "off his meds."
So what exactly happened?
Moglen attacked O'Reilly for wasting his time promoting Web 2.0 darlings, when he should be focusing on the core issues crucial to free software.
"I decided to say that we've reached a stage where we ought to be able to tell the difference between daily business news – X is up, Y is down – and the stuff that really matters, which from day-to-day is not racehorse X is running faster than racehorse Y.
"I think what time has done with this forum in general is to emphasize the trivial at the expense of the significant."
According to published reports, Moglen described O'Reilly's current approach to open source software as "frivolous." He also chastised O'Reilly for chasing money, billionaire chums and "thermal noise" like Facebook.
"We still have serious problems to correct in public policies made by people propping up business models that were dying and wasting time promoting commercial products," Moglen said, during the session.
As we understand it, O'Reilly failed to muster anything resembling a defense, and we'll just have to take others' word for it.
Chairman Khaki Scruff
Few of you will suffer from jaw drop when learning that the O'Reilly faithful came to the defeated Burger King's rescue.
A fair-minded type on the, er, O'Reilly blog noted that, "Eben was slinging careless insults left and right."
(Moglen's insults seem rather careful to us.)
I thought that Eben was lacking general courtesy and respect for his host — I don’t think its acceptable to insult your host on stage. Especially if the host is Tim O’Reilly who has gone to great lengths to foster community and has given open source developers countless chances to collaborate. Sweeping all of Tim’s accomplishments under the table and berating the audience for having wasted 10 years time is plain rude.
Another blogger described the chat as follows:
I felt uncomfortable just listening to the conversation and it was clear that many in the room felt the same way. Tim was a gracious host and gave his invited guest his full attention and asked how he could help address the issues, at which time Eben replied ‘Take down your name (the large O’Reilly sign behind the stage) and start promoting freedoms.” Tim was speechless (or so it seemed).
You have to love the shared concern for respecting the host's rights at a conference meant to foster all kinds of lively discussions. And the latter posting proves priceless for equating "speechless" with "gracious."
How symbolic that O'Reilly took the OSCON stage today as PRC Communist party propaganda music played.
Like Steve Jobs with his jeans and black top, Larry Ellison with his glazed brain and political blowhard Tucker Carlson with his bowtie, O'Reilly dons a uniform. It's tennis shoes, khaki pants and a khaki, crappy jacket. You're meant to think O'Reilly is a man of the people rather than a wealthy, self-promoter backing whatever happens to be selling. The strategy works well. But let's try – hard as it is – to stall the ad hominem track for a moment and focus back on the issues at hand.
A Web 2.0 licensing discussion through the O'Reilly filter is meant to tackle a couple of things.
First, you're mostly meant to see that "open source" and the licenses surrounding open source software matter much less than they used to. Few people will ever look at SugarCRM or Alfresco's source code and even fewer will modify it, so who cares what restrictions surround these applications. In addition, Google could turn over all the changes it has made to open source code or, in fact, its entire code base, and you'd struggle to build a Google rival with the software unless you had a few billion dollars laying around to construct data centers and hire thousands of engineers with deep experience dealing with clustered boxes.
Then, of course, you have garbage like Wikipedia, which is O'Reilly's Web 2.0 version of open source knowledge. Who cares about the Wikipedia code? You're meant to concentrate on its network-enabled reach and data.
And, in fact, it's data that stands as O'Reilly's second "open source doesn't matter" Web 2.0 pitch. We should care more about controlling our information than code. You want to move away from Google? Fine. Google should let you take your information with you.
"This whole Web 2.0 jargon tends to go along with an assumption which is, as a technical matter, we are concentrating power in a very peculiar way," Moglen told us in response. "The idea is that most computers don't do functioning software anymore. They are glorified boxes to run browsers in.
"As a technical matter of judgment, that is wrong."
As Moglen sees it, we've got a world filled with very powerful computers. The O'Reilly attendees alone have hundreds of laptops that provide horsepower a company such as IBM could only dream about a couple of decades back.
"I see a supercomputer in every room I enter," Moglen said. "I see computing power and application power and software forced to the network in a flood. Someone presenting the idea that this is all about concentrating that is either fooling himself or misleading us.
"This Web 2.0 boat is about this idea: the centralization of data and software is inevitable. Get yours now. That's not technically right and not actually respectful of the power of the communities we are building."
Critics have charged that Moglen and the FSF did not do enough to address the rise of software-as-a-service. The SaaS attack allows companies to avoid releasing changes to open source code by claiming that they're just running the software on a server and then shipping a service to the end user rather than redistributing the code. Open source licenses have tended in the past to require that you provide access to changed code if you redistribute it as a product. The new FSF-crafted GPL v3 (General Public License) avoids the SaaS conundrum.
Moglen defends this action, saying it's sometimes "difficult to respect rights without harming other peoples' rights." At the moment, a company such as Google or Yahoo! has every right to do with code as it pleases and should not face restrictions, according to the FSF.
Still, Moglen urged more discussion on this matter and thinks Google could do itself a favor by being more transparent about what open source code it does use and what it gives back to other users.
"I no more applaud obscurity than anybody else," he said. "I think it's great for businesses to be as transparent as possible, and I know some businesses more transparent than Google.
"In its present form, Google could not come to be without free software. We enable growth of an organism on this size and scale. Having enabled that growth, we are unfamiliar with what it means to live with an entity that big. Distrust comes from this unfamiliarity.
"My effort has been to say, 'You should be attentive to the diplomacy between you and the free world. That your intentions are good and money is green, I think people can see. But being diplomatic and using diplomacy widely is important too.'"
Back to Burger Boy
Returning to OSCON for a moment, we get the sense that Moglen's shot at O'Reilly was meant to disturb some shit and get people thinking again. Seriously, how much can one say about Second Life and Facebook?
Moglen confirmed as much, during a broader chat we had about waning fervor among the open source zealots – the ones apparently content with Chairman Tim's abandonment of free software.
"We might get all too comfortable sitting in that living room," Moglen said. "I think every once in awhile, you want to come to a show and raise the dust a trifle." ®