Melanie Wyne | Software of Choice

Interview with Melanie Wyne, Computing Technology Industry Association

"Technology is constantly changing, and laws take longer to change than technology does." Melanie Wyne

Rick Steele

GCN recently covered online a lecture by software developer Richard Stallman, a vocal advocate of the free-software movement and a critic of restrictive commercial-software licensing (see this issue's GCN Insider, Page 31). Stallman cast the distinction between free and proprietary software as a battle between good and evil. Naturally, we got some spirited responses from readers.

One of the most emphatic responses came from Melanie Wyne, director of public policy at the Computing Technology Industry Association. 'Stallman's dichotomy is bogus,' she told us. 'I wish I could be more polite, but I can't.' Wyne manages intellectual property, government procurement and trade issues at CompTIA and also is executive director of the Initiative for Software Choice, an effort to make software procurements technology neutral. We spoke to her about Stallman's argument, procurement issues and other matters pertinent to CompTIA.

WYNE: CompTIA is a trade association representing the broad spectrum of the information technology industry. Our members include most of the large IT vendors'. In addition to those members, we also represent the value-added resellers, the small IT businesses that set up networks and are the IT departments for small businesses.

GCN: What are the distinctions between proprietary, open-source and free software?

WYNE: Generally speaking, proprietary software is distributed under commercial licenses ' usually for a fee ' and source code, which is the blueprint for how software is designed, is not disclosed. Open-source software can be distributed under a number of licenses with varying restrictions, but generally the source code is distributed with it. Free software is a particular type of open-source software distributed under the General Public License, and it is generally required to be distributed without a licensing fee. Commercial vendors are finding ways to make money off of free software, but that tends to be based on the delivery of services rather than the sale of software licenses.

It is important to realize that the distinction between each of the licensing or business models is increasingly blurring.

There are commercial or proprietary software vendors that are adopting programs that take on aspects of open-source software, and many vendors who would call themselves open source are taking on characteristics similar to commercial products, such as licensing fees.

GCN: Software developer Richard Stallman, a founder and vocal proponent of the free-software movement, contends that the distinction between free and proprietary software is a moral one and that free software is more ethical. How do you respond to that?

WYNE: Software is not inherently ethical or unethical. It is just software; it's a commercial product, it's ones and zeroes. This kind of rhetoric about good vs. evil really isn't helpful. It does not inform the debate, it only serves to inflame it. Our members are all commercial businesses. They are trying to succeed for their customers, their shareholders and their employees. They stay out of the debate about good vs. evil.

GCN: Have you seen much acceptance of Stallman's position?

WYNE: I think that that perspective is outside of the mainstream. It ignores the fact that commercial or proprietary software creates a lot of important, innovative products that everyone uses every day. I don't see the need in devaluing it.

GCN: Should sellers and developers of software be more accountable for quality and liable for defects in their products?

WYNE: I don't think it should be government policy to mandate those'things. I see that as another product feature. If customers are demanding that of their vendor, it is up to the vendor to respond in a responsible way and offer their customers what'they are looking for.

GCN: What is the Initiative for Software Choice?

WYNE: It is a global coalition ' managed by CompTIA ' of about 300 large and small companies to advocate to governments that their IT procurement policies should be technology neutral and license neutral. We ask governments not to impose policies that would prefer or mandate a particular type of IT licensing or distribution model.

GCN: What is the problem with an agency being as specific as possible about what it wants and its preferred licensing format?

WYNE: There is not a problem with that. What we differ with is a blanket policy, and in many places around the world, we've seen this done through legislatures imposing a particular type of technology. We think it should be each particular agency making a decision on a case-by-case basis and using the technology that best meets its needs. Blanket policies harm the industry and harm the government's mission of serving their constituents. Technology is constantly changing, and laws take longer to change than technology does. What we say is, let every customer [decide] what best serves their'needs, whether it is proprietary software or open-source software or some combination of the two. But don't create blanket policies that mandate a particular technology.

GCN: Is this really a problem for industry now?

WYNE: The ISC has been dealing with this issue for more than five years now, and the complexion of the legislative proposals [has] changed over time, but there has been a movement to either outright mandate the use of open-source software or prefer open source. Lately, both in the United States and abroad, we have seen movements to create mandates or preferences for Open Document Format, which the ISC views as a back-door preference for open-source software. So it is a serious problem. It causes a lot of vendors to divert resources they could be using for innovation on their next products to instead deal with these types of policies.

GCN: You have said that proprietary, open and free software each has its place in the market. What are the relative merits of these models?

WYNE: Our members use all types of software, whatever it takes to get the job done for our customers. Our purpose isn't to promote a particular licensing model but to encourage governments to create environments where all of the models can compete in the marketplace.

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