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Why Open Source Licensing Matters

bsd-logoWhen it comes to open source licensing the discussion usually falls to either complete, nonchalant dismissal of concern or full-on crusade style battle to the death.  Why is that?  And should you be concerned?

It’s nearly impossible to avoid being accused of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt) when you engage on either side of this discussion.  But the reality is that while individuals tend to have little to risk, organizations (especially commercial businesses) have far more to risk and put more people at risk when they do so (customers, employees, investors, shareholders, etc).  This is where the debate typically rages… over the tolerance of risk which a business decision maker must assess and mitigate where possible. This is why DotNetNuke is distributed under a BSD style license instead of the more constrained GPL style.

So what risk are we talking about?  The relevant risk when considering the importance of an open source software license is whether or not your organization can remain in legal compliance without risk to your business operations or competitive advantage.  Anyone who has been involved a lawsuit accusing infringement of any kind knows what kind of burden and disruption such a suit can place on a business… and it’s not good.  So if one license type is less susceptible to compliance risk, that’s worth considering… right?  And if you can be indemnified from additional risk, that has value; DotNetNuke provides this value to its users.

This is not FUD, this is responsible research and decision making.  Dan Ravicher of the Public Patent Foundation estimates that 55 software patent suits are filed every week and the American Intellectual Property Lawyer’s Association states that a single mid-sized patent suit costs $4 million to litigate [1]. Don’t take my word for it, try a little searching yourself to see what kind of lawsuits surround usage of GPL or LGPL licenses vs. BSD style licenses.

Which license is more free?

The GPL enforces the freedom of the software by requiring that derivative works or distributions perpetuate the original license. This is typically referred to as a “copyleft” license which has great benefits for the public domain. But this can have practical problems for business users in that this reciprocity clause makes it fundamentally more difficult to retain competitive advantage.  Some would argue that this is not true and that these constraints can be technically avoided.  But it is the very fact that the license leaves room for argument that causes the problem, because legal arguments ensue… especially where a business is being successful or perceived as a strong competitor.

This problem was at the heart of the creation of University of California’s Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license. It was designed to permit free use, modification and distribution of software without return obligation.  This is referred to as a “copyright” license in that the only requirement is the continuing inclusion of the original copyright notice in copies and derivative works.  It’s also known as an “academic” license because it permits the most freedom in intellectual property sharing (consistent with the academic spirit). Compliance with a BSD license is simple and straightforward; compliance with GPL is often a subject for legal counsel.

So which is more free? While GPL software enforces constraints which keep all derivations free to users, it has the potential be very costly to invest in for any proprietary use or competitive advantage.  While the transaction cost of acquiring open source software can be free for any license… the cost profile in terms of total cost of ownership (TCO) for an organization can change dramatically when risk is considered.

Bottom line, always do your homework.  Then choose DotNetNuke ;-)


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