Open source software licensing - all wrongs reserved

13 jan '17 - Mark van Wolferen - share: LinkedIN Mail

Open source software is not rule-less - thankfully!

Following my blog series about software asset management on Computable, I received several responses from users, who frequently invoked the term open source. "Just switch to open source, then all your license issues are gone" was the main advising tendency. I absolutely applaud the emergence of open source, but I would still like to make some comments.

The recent news that Oracle customers have to pay for Java software (while they thought it's free), makes this debate even more topical. Let me premise this: I'm a fan of open source. In our organization, we try to use open source software as much as possible. For the solutions we develop for our customers, we also use open source software. But the argument that with open source software you are permanently “freed” from licensing issues is not true.


More than counting licenses

Yes, the choice for open source generally means, apart from other benifits, you save on licensing costs. But not all open source software is free in all cases, and then there are support services and related contracts. These support services are often optional and can be obtained from various providers, but certainly not always and still many larger firms still like the ability to have support if there are problems. Moreover, software asset management means more than counting licenses. The goal is to know what software you have in-house, what is used precisely, what you can do with it and how much you spend exactly. And that is remains relevant for open source software. Before I further explain why this is relevant, a brief background on the emergence of open source software from a licensing perspective, to ensure a similar language and understanding.


The emergence of open source software

Open source software has been around since the seventies. At that time the software that was written (such as TINYBasic) was made public and allowed everyone to make use of it as well as changing it.  For this software, the term "copyleft" as a nod to ”copyright” was used. To prevent others to start using the code for commercial purposes, some conditions were needed; a license was required. The first to make a license agreement public was Richard Stallman, with his GNU General Public License. Meanwhile, there are all kinds of alternative licensing agreements available and some commercial companies have created their own, often less free, version of the GNU license.


Reversed copyright

Copyright is used by an author / programmer to prevent others from reproducing the code, to modify it or to distribute the code without his or her consent. With open source software, the same right is used to do the opposite: you are in fact allowed to reproduce the software, modify and distribute it. However, often also other conditions are added. It is precisely these conditions you should be aware of and that indeed require "management". Furthermore, many programmers find it cool to make “free” code, but they find it less enjoyable if others make money with it as ultimately money has to be earned.
This all has a number of consequences, for which I identify three main areas of concern.

1. Even with open source software, there are obligations

Basically, open source is nothing more than a piece of code anyone can freely use. Unless you want to use it for commercial purposes. The owner of the code determines what you, as a user, can do with it. For example, you can never use it commercially, or only if you package it without any alterations, or not at all if particular functionality is used. How do you know what applies? By what is in the license agreement.

The agreement is not the result of contract negotiations, as with most software vendors: you just download it along with the software. Which also means the conditions are not the result of a planned process with various specialists involved from your company, the opposite; often they are not read at all.  

This agreement contains conditions and rules that you must adhere to. Often not as complicated as the enterprise contracts with major suppliers, but they are certainly there. And that's a good thing, because otherwise it will be very difficult for developers to make money. Boston University has therefore developed a standard license agreement for open source developers to use. And offers dozens of examples of how developers can license their software. Please note: not all of these examples provide the same freedom, so store them and read them!

2. Money is made with support services

Open source software itself remains in many cases free of charge- also for businesses- enforced by the person who made the original code, often for ideological reasons. Linux is a good example of open source software that really got a foothold in the enterprise market, but is still free. The money is earned with supporting Linux services by vendors such as RedHat, for example.

They provide a complete Linux package with software and support. Therefore, you as a company do not have user licenses, but support contracts. These contracts are linked to the number of software installations in the organization, so you pay per installation. The main task of a SAM manager – mapping what you have and who uses what - is still relevant in this situation. And RedHat, of course, monitors whether you pay for what you have to pay for, like for example Oracle does for its own open source products.

3. There are often several versions

Through acquisitions, there are often different versions of an open source product on the market; take MySQL, Java or Sun OS, all three are in the hands of Oracle. The old, original version remains mostly free of charge, because that was originally agreed, but as of a certain new release the conditions have changed, the software should be paid for. Now there are two versions - a free version and a paid one - each with their own terms. As a company it is obviously good to know which version you have. And if you have the free version, it is good to know that it is not further developed and that there is often no support offered on it.


Open source is not an anarchy – thankfully

My enthusiasm for open source remains undiminished. If the open source version is at least as good as the closed source product, I advise companies, from a cost perspective and vendor lock-in, to choose it. However, I emphasize that still commitments and contractual conditions are involved. Open source is not an anarchy. Fortunately! Otherwise anyone could start to sell Linux and make money from it.
Moreover, for me, the choice of open source software cannot be separated from the discussion about software asset management. SAM will always remain important for large organizations, whether it's about open source, SaaS or on-premises software. Firstly, because corporations simply have a complex infrastructure where all these different kinds of software are used. Secondly, because as a SAM manager you always want to have insight into the possession, use and cost of software.

This article is also published on You can find the Dutch version here.

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