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Open Source isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK. Proprietary Systems aren’t for everyone, and that’s OK too.

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Last week, there was a small dust up in the community about a “leaked” document from one of the systems suppliers in the community about issues regarding Open Source (OS) software.  The merits of the document itself aren’t nearly as interesting as the issues surrounding it and the reactions from the community.  The paper outlined from the company’s perspective the many issues that face organizations that choose an open source solution as well as the benefits to proprietary software.  Almost immediately after the paper was released on Wikileaks, the OS community pounced on its release as “spreading FUD {i.e., Fear Uncertainty and Doubt}” about OS solutions.  This is a description OS supporters use for corporate communications that support the use and benefits of proprietary solutions.

From my mind the first interesting issue is that there is a presumption that any one solution is the “right” one, and the sales techniques from both communities understandably presume that each community’s approach is best for everyone.  This is almost never the case in a marketplace as large, broad and diverse as the US library market.  Each approach has it’s own strengths AND weaknesses and the community should work to understand what those strengths and weaknesses are, from both sides.  A clearer understanding and discussion of those qualities should do much to improve both options for the consumers.  There are potential issues with OS software, such as support, bug fixing, long-term sustainability, and staffing costs that implementers of OS options need to consider.  Similarly, proprietary options could have problems with data lock-in, interoperability challenges with other systems, and customization limitations.   However, each too has their strengths.  With OS these include and openness and an opportunity to collaboratively problem solve with other users and an infinite customizability.  Proprietary solutions provide a greater level of support and accountability, a mature support and development environment, and generally known fixed costs.

During the NISO Library Resources Management Systems educational forum in Boston last month, part of the program was devoted to a discussion of whether an organization should build or buy LRMS system.  There were certainly positives and downsides described from each approach.  The point that was driven home for me is that each organization’s situation is different and each team brings distinct skills that could push an organization in one direction or another.  Each organization needs to weigh the known and potential costs against their needs and resources.  A small public library might not have the technical skills to tweak OS systems in a way that is often needed.  A mid-sized institution might have staff that are technically expert enough to engage in an OS project.  A large library might be able to reallocate resources, but want the support commitments that come with a proprietary solution.  One positive thing about the marketplace for library systems is the variety of options and choices available to management.

Last year, during the Charleston Conference during a discussion of Open Source, I made the comment that, yes, everyone could build their own car, but why would they.  I personally don’t have the skills or time to build my own, I rely on large car manufacturers to do so for me.  When it breaks, I bring it to a specialized mechanic who knows how to fix it.  On the other hand, I have friends who do have the skills to build and repair cars. They save lots of money doing their own maintenance and have even built sports cars and made a decent amount of money doing so.  That doesn’t make one approach right or wrong, better or worse.  Unfortunately, people frequently let these value judgments color the debate about costs and benefits. As with everything where people have a vested interest in a project’s success, there are strong passions in the OS solutions debate.

What make these systems better for everyone is that there are common data structures and a common language for interacting.  Standards such as MARC, Z39.50, and OpenURL, among others make the storage, discovery and delivery of library content more functional and more interoperable.  As with all standards, they may not be perfect, but they have served the community well and provide an example of how we can as a community move forward in a collaborative way.

For all of the complaints hurled at the proprietary systems vendors (rightly or wrongly), they do a tremendous amount to support the development of voluntary consensus standards, which all systems are using.  Interoperability among library systems couldn’t take place without them.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the OS community.  As Carl Grant, President of Ex Libris, made the point during the vendor roundtable in Boston, “How many of the OS support vendors and suppliers are members of and participants in NISO?”  Unfortunately, the answer to that question is “None” as yet.  Given how critical open standards are to the smooth functioning of these systems, it is surprising that they haven’t engaged in standards development.  We certainly would welcome their engagement and support.

The other issue that is raised about the release of this document is its provenance.  I’ll discuss that in my next post.

Upcoming Forum on Library Resource Management Systems

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

In Boston on October 8-9, NISO will host a 2-day educational forum, Library Resource Management Systems: New Challenges, New Opportunities. We are pleased to bring together a terrific program of expert speakers to discuss some of the key issues and emerging trends in library resource management systems as well as to take a look at the standards used and needed in these systems.

 

The back end systems upon which libraries rely have become the center of a great deal of study, reconsideration and development activity over the past few years.  The integration of search functionality, social discovery tools, access control and even delivery mechanisms to traditional cataloging systems are necessitating a conversation about how these component parts will work together in a seamless fashion.  There are a variety of approaches, from a fully-integrated system to a best-of-breed patchwork of systems, from locally managed to software as a service approaches.  No single approach is right for all institutions and there is no panacea for all the challenges institutions face providing services to their constituents.  However, there are many options an organization could choose from.  Careful planning can help to find the right one and can save the institution tremendous amounts of time and effort.  This program will provide some of the background on the key issues that management will need to assess to make the right decision.

 

Registration is now open and we hope that you can join us. 

OLE to hold a web seminar on Evergreen 12/9

Friday, December 5th, 2008

The OLE Project will be hosting a free webinar on December 9th discussing the Evergreen project. run by the Georgia Public Library Service.  Earlier this fall, at the NISO Collaborative Resource Sharing seminar, two of the presenters in this webinar, Julie Walker and Elizabeth McKinney, spoke about the Evergreen project.  Their presentation is available here.  

There is also an article in the forthcoming issue of ISQ on the OLE Project.  The issue will be available online soon.  

More information is on the OLE website

From the site:  

December 9, 2008

5:00 pm to 6:00 pm

John Little will host a webcast discussion with the principle developers and drivers of the Evergreen Project. The Webcast will be open to the first 100 participants, recorded for playback, and made available on the Oleproject.org site. To Register for the Webcast: Register Now

Participants include:

• John Little, ILS Support Section Head, Duke University

• Julie Walker, Deputy State Librarian, Georgia Public Library Service

• Tim Daniels, Assistant State Librarian

• Elizabeth McKinney, PINES Program Director

• Chris Sharp, PINES System Administrator

Microsoft, Open ID and the future of authentication

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

Microsoft announced today that the company is throwing its weight behind the OpenID system.  Microsoft’s Live ID will become an OpenID with the launch of their OpenID Provider (OP), which will initially be launched within Microsoft’s Community Technology Preview testing service. ”The current Technology Preview release is for testing purposes only, and is not intended for widespread adoption at this stage. After a period of industry testing and feedback, we will be incorporating any necessary fixes and feature enhancements into the next revision, to be released to Production sometime in 2009.”

There is a list of non-compliant websites, which users are demanding the use of OpenID on their sites, Demand OpenID.  The site lists some of the most recognized sites on the web, such as Google, Twitter, FacebookWikipediaYoutube and del.icio.us.  It will be very interesting to see who else follows Microsoft’s lead in this area.

This action is not surprising given Microsoft’s support of Open Standards, which hit its stride with the standardization within ISO of OOXML earlier this year.  In the release, they note “We have been tracking the evolution of the OpenID specification, from its birth as just a dream and a vision through its development into a mature, de facto standard with terms that make it viable for us to implement it now.” The fact that Microsoft is awaiting the maturity of non-Microsoft standards before they throw their weight behind them indicates that there will be a competitive approach to standards development in the coming years and we will be in a period with a number of competing standards for several years. 

The New York Times covered the announcement in today’s edition.  Quoting from the article:

“This move by a traditionally proprietary organization like Microsoft could be the signal that gives the market – both large and small players combined – the confidence to invest more time and energy into the widespread adoption of OpenID. That is good news for OpenID proponents. And it’s equally good news for all of us who are interested in simplifying the management of our identity across the multitude of sites we use on a day-to-day basis.” 

Microsoft has a Windows Live ID blog where more information will be posted as the testing moves forward. The library and publishing communities have been dealing with the thorny issue of authentication for a number of years.  The application of OpenID solves part of the problem, but does not address the other key aspect of authentication: certification. There will still need to be some considerable work toward rationalizing authentication and identity management, making the process simpler for end-users through a single sign-on is a big step in the right direction.  

Court acknowledges copyright law application to Open Source software

Friday, August 15th, 2008

In an important ruling yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit yesterday stood behind the concept that open source software should be covered by copyright law, which strengthens the rights of OS developers. 

This is a critical win for open source developers, which although seemingly obvious was an untested aspect of US law.  Software has long been viewed in the courts as being covered under copyright law.  Some background on the copyright protections provided to software is here, here and here.

The crux of the case centers on whether the terms of an open source license such as the Artistic License in this case (or similar licenses, such as Creative Commons) should be considered “conditions of, or merely covenants to, the copyright licenses.”  When a copyright holder grants a nonexclusive license to use a copyrighted work, he/she forfeits his/her rights to sue for copyright infringement and can only sue for breach of contract.

Why is this an important distinction?  One could consider violations of use a violation of contract law, which would significantly reduce the penalties for violation.  Contract law violations frequently result in awards that are a derivative of the monetary damages related to the contract.  In the case of Open Source software, there is very limited if any exchange of funds, and therefore very limited monetary damages.

In the ruling, Judge White addressed the question of economic benefits accruing to OS developers by writing:

The lack of money changing hands in open source licensing should not be presumed to mean that there is no economic consideration, however.  There are substantial benefits, including economic benefits, to the creation and distribution of copyrighted works under public licenses that range far beyond traditional license royalties. 

Copyright infringement on the other hand has a set of penalties and remedies that are much more significant and are not explicitly tied to the financial terms of an exchange.  In addition, copyright cases can include attorney’s fees in the remediation.

In the decision, the Artistic License used by the plaintiff was deemed to be limited in scope and have conditions, which the licensor violated, then the case was deemed to be infringing on copyright. Deciding in the plaintiff’s favor because of the clause “provided that …” created limitations and conditions in the license to which the licensor must adhere or they would be infringing on the copyrights of the licensor.  In this particular case, the “conditions set forth in the Artistic License are vital to enable the copyright holder to retain the ability to benefit from the work of downstream users.”  In addition, licensors are “authorized to make modifications and to distribute the materials provided that the user follows the restrictive terms of the Artistic License.”  These conditions of use were deemed to be sufficient restrictions to the terms of the license to distinguish them from contractual covenants.

This case will reinforce the legal protections for producers of OS software that have underpinned the development and sharing of OS code for years.  Andy Updegrove, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property law, standards and a prolific blogger, was quoted in PC Magazine as saying:

“For the community this wasn’t about the money at all, but about receiving the blessing of an important court that the foundations upon which the entire fee and open source and Creative Commons philosophies are based.”