We'll see | Matt Zimmerman

a potpourri of mirth and madness

linux.conf.au 2010: Day 5 (morning)

Andrew Tridgell: Patent defence for free software

I missed the start of this talk, but when I arrived, Andrew was explaining how to read and interpret patent claims. This is even less obvious than one might suppose. He offered advice on which parts to read first, and which could be disregarded or referred to only as needed.

Invalidating a patent entirely is difficult, but because patents are interpreted very narrowly, inventions can often be shown to be “different enough” from the patented one.

Where “workarounds” are found, which enable free software to interoperate or solve a problem in a different way than described in a patent, Andrew says it is important to publish them far and wide. This helps to discourage patent holders from attacking free software, because the discovery and publication of a workaround could lead to them losing all of their revenue from the patent (as their licensees could adopt that instead and stop paying for licenses).

Michael Koziarski: Lessons learned from a growing project

Michael, a member of the Rails core team, introduced himself as a pragmatist who is not interested in the principles of free software, only in working with the best tools he can find (many of which are actually proprietary). He gave an overview of what Rails is and where it came from, and a list of lessons he learned from its history.

Michael says that users make the best contributors, because they work to address user needs (which they understand first-hand). He contrasted this with developers who join the project to experiment with the latest technology or rewrite code without good reason. Therefore, in order to gain more contributors, it is important to market the project and attract more users.

He downplayed the conventional wisdom of “release early and often”, recommending a release early enough that there is plenty of incomplete work which contributors can help with, but not so early that the software is useless. In other words, release early, but not too early, and often, but not too often.

As is becoming thematic for the free software community, he recognized the necessity of dealing appropriately with people who do not advance the aims of the project. His example was people who don’t really want to use the software, because there is something about it they don’t like. Unless this one thing is changed, they say, it is of no interest to them. They may imply, or even state outright, that if the project changed in some way, they would join enthusiastically. Michael says that this is often untrue, and that even if they get the feature they want, they will not become valuable contributors. He also spoke of addressing trolls, not just the obvious ones, but more respectable-looking pundits as well.

Rails attracted many users early on because of its upstart status, and Michael pointed out that these people later left the project as it became more mainstream. The same was true of contributors, who left for other projects for their own reasons, to learn new things or explore a different direction.

Over time, the number of willing volunteers in the Rails community was much greater than the corresponding stack of “work to do”. Contributors became furious because their contributions were neglected; they threatened to fork the project and left the community. He stressed the importance of avoiding this scenario by tending to these contributors and their contributions.

He advised (mostly) ignoring your project’s competitors as a means of staying focused on the project’s core vision. In particular, he says that projects which define themselves in terms of their competition (“foo is like Rails, but…”) are not worth paying attention to.

He praised Rails’ use of a more permissive (non-copyleft) license, because it encouraged the growth of an ecosystem of hosting providers and tools. I didn’t quite follow his argument as to why this was.

Some of Michael’s lessons resonated with my experience of Ubuntu’s growth, while others did not. Regardless, it was useful to hear his perspective, and the differences may highlight the differing characters of the two projects.

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Written by Matt Zimmerman

January 21, 2010 at 23:20

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