Dan DeFrancesco: License to Build

Licensing is the key to open source continuing to prosper.


Dan believes that the biggest issue facing the further growth of open source lies in licenses.

You rarely find a consensus when covering something in financial services; opinions tend to vary across the market, which makes sense because I’m not sure how the industry could function if everyone decided to do everything exactly the same way. 

However, while reporting on open-source software for my feature, which will go live next week, it was tough to find anyone with a negative opinion on it. Big or small. Buy side or sell side. All the firms I spoke with seemed to be on board with what they believed to be a host of benefits that come from using open source

I understand this is a self-selecting group. Those who aren’t as in favor of open source aren’t likely to speak to a reporter. Still, it seems like the majority of the industry is in favor of this cost-effective resource. 

There was, however, one dark cloud I discovered. While it seems all financial firms are willing to try open-source software, things change when it comes to contributing their own software back into the community and accepting contributions. Licenses around the usage of open source appear to be a tricky topic, especially for larger firms.

It seems so stereotypical: Wall Street firms are happy to take all the open-source software they can get their hands on, but when the time comes to contribute back to communities … not so much. 

Firms need to be willing to completely commit to the open-source community by allowing for contributions to their libraries.

It reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the movie The Dark Knight Rises. Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (played by Anne Hathaway) is dancing with Bruce Wayne, aka Batman (played by Christian Bale) at an extravagant gala event. While discussing their backgrounds, Kyle lashes out at Wayne for what she believes is wrong with the upper echelon of society: “You think all this can last? There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little to the rest of us.”

Give and Take

Lest I sound like a communist who believes in shared wealth for everyone, I should clarify that I understand and believe in capitalism. I get that the world can’t be entirely comprised of everyone sharing software that’s free. 

That said, it’s a virtually unanimous belief that open-source communities with the most contributors and activity are the most successful. The more eyes looking at the source code, the better. 

If that’s the case, we can’t have some of the biggest financial institutions in the world choose to sit out when it comes to giving back to the open-source community and taking contributions. 

I understand that there are legal issues surrounding this give and take. It’s easy for a fintech startup that is active in the open-source community to point its finger at a big bank and chastise it for not giving back when in reality the smaller firm takes on a fraction of the risk that a larger firm takes when contributing.

Banks and asset managers can’t hide behind legal issues forever, and to be honest, I don’t think they want to. At the end of the day they recognize the benefits that can come from giving back. 

It’s not just a matter of the source-code improvement. Young developers thrive in the open-source community, so giving them the opportunity to contribute to open source at work is another recruiting tool firms can use in what has turned into an all-out war over programmers. 

It comes down to no one wanting to be the first one in the pool. Goldman Sachs showed there has been some progress. In October 2015, the New York-based investment bank migrated its open-source Java library, GS Collections, to the Eclipse Foundation, which can now accept contributions on the re-named Eclipse Collections. 

Still that was more of a workaround than anything else. Firms need to be willing to completely commit to the open-source community by allowing for contributions to their libraries. 

After all, you can only take only so long before someone eventually pushes back. 

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