Linux Australia’s immediate past president reckons moderate open source developers are being pushed into “a refugee situation” between the ‘free software’ and ‘commercial’ hardliners.

Pia Waugh (nee Smith) told delegates to in Canberra this week the free and open source (FOSS) community was suffering an identity crisis as many developers did not identify strongly with either camp.

The free software movement argues the democratic, open development model of free software is in itself a virtue and an intrinsic advantage over proprietary software, whereas commercial open source developers are more pragmatic and profit-motivated.

However, as commercial imperatives intrude further and further into free and open source software development, many developers are being torn between the philosophical perspectives of one side and the pragmatism of the other.

Waugh said people outside the community who did not understand the distinction between various groups and models were lumping them all together under the ‘open source’ banner.

“Open source became a term we all tried to use,” Waugh said, “and free software was something many in Western society didn’t understand.

“Open source is becoming talked about by people with suits over coffee, as opposed to people with beards over coffee”.

Waugh said the key to preventing polarisation within the free and open source community (FOSS) was for all involved to acknowledge both the commercial and idealistic side of its culture. Individuals also needed to understand how problem areas such as patents, intellectual property and procurement affected the community.

In her presentation, entitled Code vs Culture, Waugh called on the FOSS community to respect and embrace not just the coding aspect of software, but lift their contributions in documentation, community work, events, advocacy, and political and media relations.

She cited the threats posed by the Australia-United States free trade agreement in areas such as patents and copyright as an area where the community could have run a unified public campaign targeting the media and parliament.

Both Linux Australia and Open Source Industry Australia reckon harmonisation of Australia’s software patent and copyright law with the US have negative implications for local software developers and end-users of open source software.

While the treaty has been signed, it is believed there are no immediate changes to Australia’s patent laws. However “harmonisation” of the laws is on the agenda under the treaty for the future.