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In Medias Res

In Medias Res

JavaOne always provides plenty of food for thought. JavaOne 2003 was no exception. This year, Alan Williamson, our beloved editor-in-chief, organized a "birds-of-a-feather" session for the JDJ editorial board. This is quite an auspicious bunch, and this session provided an opportunity for us to meet face-to-face for the first time.

The panel started out a bit slowly, and was initially lightly attended. I suspect this was because it was scheduled early in the evening by JavaOne standards, at 9:30 p.m. But after a few obligatory questions on JDK 1.5 and the JCP, people began streaming in, and the questions became a bit more lively. One of the liveliest topics that came up was about the Java platform and open source.

For the record, while I am still employed at Sun, I am no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the Java platform. I am still involved in both open source and the Java platform at a personal level. The intersection of these two topics actually hints at a fascinating evolution that is occurring.

The tension between open source and the Java platform is because we are "in medias res." This Latin phrase is used in literature to describe a plot that starts "in the middle of things" (the literal translation). We are in the middle of the plot narrative of nothing less than the evolution of the nature of intellectual property rights.

There are two ways to think about intellectual property (IP) rights. The first is, for lack of a better phrase, the old way. This way says that all intellectual property created must be jealously guarded and carefully licensed, often for commercial gain. This is a time-honored legitimate avenue for exercising your rights. In fact, it was enshrined in Article I, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution, way back in the 18th century.

There are many (if not all) companies that have taken full advantage of this way of thinking about IP rights, including Sun. These companies have software and other IP jealously guarded and licensed for commercial gain as well as protection. "And that," as Stuart Smalley says, "is okay." In a free society, it must be possible for someone to create something, even if it is only an idea or as ephemeral as software, and be able to profit from it or protect it.

The second way to think about IP rights was born in the late '60s and '70s. At the AI Lab at MIT, a notion arose that more could be accomplished by sharing your IP. Richard Stallman developed this into the CopyLeft and the GNU Public License, which codified this notion. This philosophy asserts that there will be a faster pace of innovation if IP, or code, is shared. It is posited by some that some code is in fact so crucial to the evolution of the art/science that it must be kept "open" forever. There is also proof that points to the success of this approach - OpenOffice.org, Mozilla, and SNORT are key examples.

The conflict between these two views of IP rights will be with us for a long time. It must be possible for you to create something and do what you want with it, free from intervention from the government or a third party. "Do what you want with it" means protect it or make it freely available. What this means, in essence, is that the two ways of thinking about IP rights are essentially irreconcilable. One can not be transubstantiated into the other.

And so this tension around open source will be with us for a long time to come. And this will be what makes JavaOne panels interesting for a long time to come, as well.

More Stories By Bill Roth

Bill Roth is a Silicon Valley veteran with over 20 years in the industry. He has played numerous product marketing, product management and engineering roles at companies like BEA, Sun, Morgan Stanley, and EBay Enterprise. He was recently named one of the World's 30 Most Influential Cloud Bloggers.

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