It’s not very often that there are genuine reasons for investigative journalism in the free software world; for the most part, the stuff that happens within the community is open and well-covered by the likes of LWN (who, if you don’t already subscribe to, you should). The stuff that happens outside the community – well, you rarely get to hear about what goes on. We know companies lobby, both against competitors products and against ideas their competitors promote, and that’s nothing new – that’s just competition.
It’s rare to find, then, a brochure produced with the intent of talking down free software as a whole. However, Wikileaks has turned up just such a document: the SirsiDynix brochure against “open source” library software, distributed on a restricted basis to certain customers. In particular, they’re raging against the likes of Evergreen and Koha. I should own up that I’ve known one particular Koha developer, MJ Ray, for a long while, but this isn’t an area I particularly have a lot of direct experience. If I were a Koha developer, though, reading this would be a bit smarting: they accuse it of many things, in particular of having priorities belonging in the 80s.
As well as the relatively malicious falsehoods being perpetrated against those specific library projects, there are also vague allegations about open source in general – from accusations of Red Hat being “proprietary” to the highly entertaining argument that the US Department of Defense “restrict the use of open source software for fear that it could pose a terrorist opportunity” (clearly, SirsiDynix are not exactly up-to-speed themselves with the state of the art in this area).
What does this document tell us about SirsiDynix? Well, first, it tells us that they probably have a product which is much better than the state of the art in the free software community: they are an incumbent, large business with offices across the world, and even though I’ve no experience of their product I’m sure it’s about one of the most featureful things on the market. But, this is the really interesting thing: someone in their position would not go to the effort of even writing a single side of A4 on the ills of free software were it not for the fact that this is a threat to them. So, for as much as their systems do, and for all the talking down of free software they do, they are obviously worried. Clearly Koha and Evergreen are getting something right.
And here’s what I think they’re getting right, and what customers of SirsiDynix should be looking at. The author of this paper – Stephen Abram – blogs extensively from his “Lighthouse” at SirsiDynix (which is actually, cough, open source Movable Type). And interestingly, this “leak” having hit Wikileaks yesterday (the 29th), he’s posted the same paper on his blog today (30th, actually just in the last few minutes!) in a posting entitled “It’s About a Respectful Discussion“. Note well that word, “Respectful”. While his paper warns customers to stay away from free software lest they end up in the dirty, proprietary hands of Red Hat, he freely admits they use it. It would be quite easy to take apart the paper on a factual basis and highlight the inaccuracies and blatant spin. But, I think there’s an easier way.
Simply read the posts at the Lighthouse. Read about the crucial role of communities and the technologies of the web that bring them together, or the difference in information production and consumption in information technology-literate users. It’s clear Stephen realises that the role of “creator of content” is played by a broad spectrum of people, and the role of a modern library is not simply to warehouse dusty knowledge trapped in paper for the locals to learn from. Libraries of the future will be as much about production of information as dissemination, and I think Stephen realises this – and that’s why his arguments against production of software in a community fall flat on their face.