Home Business IT Open Source The pluses and minuses of licensing

As the use of free and open source licences for software grows, there is an increasing amount of misinformation being spread about the conditions which such licences impose.


Proponents of open source push their licences as superior; the folk who support free software licences, such as the GPL, do likewise. And those who are selling commercial software under proprietary licences throw mud at both free and open source licences, hoping some will stick.

When the average company wants to find out details of these licences - in order to use free and, often, much better crafted code - it is unlikely to approach either the open source or free software advocates. Nor would such an entity go to the Open Source Initiative or the Free Software Foundation.

More likely, it would approach a commercial entity like Protecode, which develops a product that checks for free and open source licence compliance, for advice. The interpretation of licensing terms that such a company - or its competitors like OpenLogic, Palamida and Black Duck Software - disseminates thus assumes importance.

The chief executive of Protecode, Mahshad Koohgoli, offered to answer a few common questions about free and open source licences; his answers are below.

iTWire: How do you know which products you can charge for based on the type of license used?

Mahshad Koohgoli: None of the recognised open source licenses (recognised means that Open Source Initiative has approved them) place any limitations on commercialisation of projects that use software governed by these licences.  You can charge for your products whether or not they use these open source licenses.  

How do you decide whether or not to use GPL-governed code or projects?

Copyleft or restrictive licenses such as GPL 2.1 would require you to release your code to the public under the same licence. This may or may not be acceptable depending on your business model, and your competitive position, or barriers to entry to your market for others.  Permissive licences such as Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) licence would be more suitable if you do not wish to make your code available to the whole world.

There are different versions of GPL licences, though. For example LGPL will allow you to link your code to GPL open source software without opening up your own code. GPLv2.1 requires you that you release your code under GPLv2.1 even if you link to such open source software. With GPL, copyleft licences will not apply if you do not distribute your software unless you use open source code governed by an extension of GPLv3 called Affero.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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