November 10, 2001

Open Source alive and well at O'Reilly P2P conference

Author: JT Smith

- By Russell Pavlicek -

The second annual O'Reilly P2P Conference, once delayed because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, went off this week in Washington, D.C., as a smaller affair but with keynotes from a congressman urging attendees to lobby for their fair-use rights and several companies showing off their Open Source visions for peer-to-peer.

Those who have attended many conferences over the years are well
aware keynote speeches can often be some of the worst talks of a conference, but this was not the case at O'Reilly P2P. There were some informative keynotes, especially those by Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School, Congressman Rick Boucher (D-Virginia), and Sun Microsystems' chief technology evangelist Simon Phipps.

Among the vendors in attendance, Sun was especially prevalent. In his
keynote, Sun's Phipps advised the audience that their best protection
against vendor lock-in was Open Source. He said Sun views Open
Source as a valuable software development methodology, rather than "being
religious about it." Sun used the Open Source methodology for Netbeans and Forte for Java, he said, and deploying applications built on proprietary protocols was actually the act of deploying "instant legacy" solutions. Phipps said that in the Internet
world where the network truly is the computer, closed protocols have no

In addition to Phipps' keynote, the conference featured several
sessions and a tutorial about aspects of Sun's JXTA P2P
development layer. Licensed with an Apache-style license, JXTA is an Open
Source framework for developing P2P applications. Current bindings are
available for Java, but versions for C++, Perl, and other languages are
under development. Detailed information is available on

Open Source CDDB?

In another talk featuring Open Source, Robert Kaye of the MusicBrainz project explained why he wanted to create an Open Source alternative to CDDB, the Internet-based CD database
service. Ever since CDDB became proprietary, there had been efforts to
create a new free service. Unlike some other efforts like FreeDB, which
want to create a drop-in replacement for CDDB, the MusicBrainz project is
a fresh project with the goal of creating a free encyclopedia of
music information. By not using the same interface as CDDB, MusicBrainz
hopes to avoid lawsuits from the current owners of CDDB. And Kaye wins
the award for Most Notable Haircut, thanks to the P2P logo shaved into the
back of his head, in exchange for some project support from O'Reilly.

Other Open Source projects were represented, as well. Jabber was discussed
in a few talks. I spoke with the folks at Curl, who are taking a
different approach to Open Source: They want you to pay for the execution
of their closed source Curl language, but the applications they supply are
Open Source. They get points for taking a new approach, but it
remains to be seen whether they will succeed in their business model.

The law of P2P

Boucher's keynote received a strong positive response. He spoke about the need to educate Congress regarding the power of P2P technology. Congressmen hear from the entertainment industry about how P2P companies are "stealing" their property and they naturally seek to stop it, he said. But congressmen need to understand that much of what the entertainment companies call "stealing" is regarded as "fair use" under
copyright law.

The P2P conference also featured an number of talks and panels regarding
P2P issues and the law. Fred von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier
participated in a number of enlightening talks about these
legal issues. It was announced during the conference that the EFF would
be joining MusicCity's defense team. Unlike the Napster case, MusicCity
is being sued for distributing software that enables users to potentially
infringe on copyrights. MusicCity provides no service, only
software. This means that software providers -- including individual Open
Source developers -- might be targeted by these media companies for the
"crime" of writing software.

The legal track reached its peak with the closing keynote from law professor and author Lessig. He talked about the MusicCity suit and compared it to the handgun industry. Current legal
opinion does not hold handgun manufacturers liable for the misdeeds of
handgun owners, but the entertainment industry wants to hold a software
supplier liable for the misdeeds of some software users. Thus, he
concluded that, "In America, technologies which interfere with
intellectual property are move evil than handguns." He also explained how
a strong public domain was necessary to foster innovation, and how overly
strong copyright protections will prevent technologies from entering the
public domain. He encouraged attendees to take action by writing to
Congress and sending donations to groups that are fighting to protect fair-use rights.

Open Source was solidly in the mix during the
conference. Unlike some other general computing conferences, there was no
bickering over Open Source versus closed source. Considering how long
some of us have worked to get Open Source solutions taken seriously, it
was very gratifying to see that Open Source was recognized as a
significant force in the market today.

On the whole, the attendees seemed pleased with the conference. I spoke
to one man who had hoped that the P2P business solutions would be
more advanced than they are today. But, this is a new technology area, and
the business applications are still maturing. It is clear, however, that
there are a number of software developers who are taking the technology
seriously and working hard to create serious business solutions.

Sun's technology evangelist speaks out

In a discussion with Sun's Phipps after his keynote
address, I asked him about the role of Open Source at Sun. He said he doesn't believe that Open Source as a development methodology would be
appropriate for certain applications like accounts receivable. Open
Source is best suited for developing foundational code, like operating
systems, which serve as a platform for other applications, he added. This is the
theory behind Sun's JXTA project, which serves as the Open Source
foundation for P2P applications. The applications themselves can be
either Open Source or proprietary, as the developers see fit.

When asked about some of the licensing issues that have been raised about
Java, Phipps said that Java might not have survived as an Open Source
project. He pointed to the recent battles between Sun and Microsoft over
Java and said that if Java were an Open Source project, it probably would
not have been able to withstand the onslaught. He claimed that Kaffe, the
Open Source Java implementation, was a usable platform for people who
insisted on using an Open Source solution.

When I questioned Phipps about claims in the media that Linux is
taking business from other Unix systems rather than Windows, he did not
agree. From Sun's perspective, Linux is a type of Unix and anything that
expands the Unix market is a good thing. Customers can then select
between Linux and Solaris according the performance and features required.
He believes that IBM's willingness to draw distinctions between Unix and
Linux is actually aiding the WinTel alliance.


  • Open Source
Click Here!