Rob Glaser on Helix Licensing Plans

by Sam Williams, author of Free as in Freedom

SAN DIEGO -- On the same day his company pledged to integrate the open source Ogg Vorbis format and audio codec into its newly open-sourced Helix streaming media client, RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser commented on his company's first tentative steps within the open source community.

"Philosophically, there's been a lot of support for open source inside our company," said Glaser, whose company announced Monday the relicensing of several software tools. "It's been a bit of a risky venture for us, though, since we're a company that's purely dependent on software."

Seated onstage with event host Tim O'Reilly, Glaser fielded questions about why his company chose to relicense certain portions of its client technology under a GPL-inspired RealNetworks Public Source License and certain portions of its server-side technology under a Java-style RealNetworks Community Source License.

About the dual-license approach, Glaser said, "We studied a lot not just how to connect with the community, but also how to build a licensing model that would allow our commercial partners to build and maintain compatible applications."

O'Reilly wondered aloud if the move was a sly attempt to "embrace and extend" Microsoft's own proprietary Windows Media Player into the open source space, a strategy similar to what Samba developers have achieved with SMB, a Microsoft networking standard that, despite the company's best attempts, remains an open link to free software operating systems. A Monday New York Times article covering the relicensing announcement hinted as much, and Glaser repeating his assertion that RealNetworks earned its Microsoft compatibility the hard way (by reverse engineering the performance, as opposed to cracking the legally protected encryption mechanisms).

"So you could say this is a case of turnabout being fair play?" asked O'Reilly.

"Yes, turnabout is fair play in this case," said Glaser.

Ultimately, Glaser credited the company's complex approach to the software license to the complex state of the marketplace. Dividing the current streaming media marketplace into three categories: research developers concerned primarily with innovation, application vendors concerned primarily with compatibility, and "vampires" (competitors willing to borrow other companies' innovations and fold them into existing proprietary offerings).

"We want to help the first two communities, but we don't want to be naïve about the third," said Glaser.

Depending on how the first two communities respond, Glaser said, the company would expand its open source license to portions of its software codebase currently covered by the community source license.

"The nuance is wanting both communities to flourish, the community working with the open source [version] and the community building applications and worrying about compatibility," Glaser said. "Hopefully we can make that happen."

Sam Williams is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York, and the author of O'Reilly's Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software. He has covered high-tech culture, specifically software-development culture, for a number of Web sites.

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