Just How 'Free' Are Open Source Licensing Models? - InformationWeek

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4/10/2007
10:26 AM
Seth Grimes
Seth Grimes
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Just How 'Free' Are Open Source Licensing Models?

I've been studying licensing issues and developing case studies in the course of preparing a class on Open Source for the Enterprise. Licensing is, after all, the heart and soul of Open Source. The right approach will encourage project use and foster development while allowing participants to derive value from their contributions, and we can learn from what worked (or didn't) for others.

Confusion and controversy about Open Source licensing did not start with current Free Software Foundation efforts to revise the GNU General Public License (GPL). Nor will emergence of an acceptable GPL V3 - or of a revised Lesser GPL or Affero GPL (thanks Dana Blankenhorn) - make OS licensing much less problematical for enterprise users. Concerns are both alleviated and complicated by a profusion of options that range from GPL's communitarianism to the Common Public License's collaborative focus to BSD's laissez-faire liberality. The variety of schemes in use creates opportunity: witness, for instance, Apache's magnificent munificence. But one must also take care to avoid bait-and-switch, pretend Open Source licenses that promise freedom in both common senses, liberty and price, but ultimately deliver neither.I've been studying licensing issues and developing case studies in the course of preparing a class on Open Source for the Enterprise. Licensing is, after all, the heart and soul of Open Source. The right approach will encourage project use and foster development while allowing participants to derive value from their contributions, and we can learn from what worked (or didn't) for others.

SplendidCRM presents an interesting case study. I won't assess the software itself, a derivative and extension of the successful SugarCRM open-source package. Where SugarCRM uses PHP and thus runs on multiple operating systems, SplendidCRM author Paul Rony rewrote a 2005 version of the package for Microsoft's .Net framework using the C# programming language: Windows required. Rony is largely exploiting SugarCRM's intellectual property - the user-interface elements and back-end logic - without interest in its instantiation. SplendidCRM must nonetheless provide its core technologies, publicly and in perpetuity, under the SugarCRM Public License 1.1.3 (SPL). SPL is itself an amended version of the Mozilla Public License (MPL) v1.1 even though the products are themselves unrelated.

License borrowing is not an issue: the license is open property, provided under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license. Yet interestingly, where MPL is approved by the Open Source Initiative (OSI), SPL and hence the SplendidCRM license are not, presumably for reasons that include the CRM vendors' handling of extensions. Both SugarCRM and SplendidCRM aim to make money by commercially licensing non-open-source language packs, database interfaces, and a Microsoft Outlook plug-in, also by hosting, by SaaS. The vending of extensions is allowed by the SugarCRM license, but is it sustainable? Dana Blankenhorn repeats earlier reports that SugarCRM is considering moving to GPL v3, noting the desire to encourage community participation and code contributions with benefits to the company that would outweigh foregone licensing revenues.

By contrast SplendidCRM author Paul Rony tells me that he has not actively courted project contributors. "We did not want to have to document the 1000 changes [in moving to .Net 2.0] in such a way as to allow the contributors to duplicate them on their code base… We need to convert from a Web Application Project to a Web Site… These are all highly technical reasons."

I commend the spirit and generosity of all open-source initiatives, but frankly, both SplendidCRM's development process and the licensing model they share with SugarCRM seem immature. Open Source is most vibrant and successful, measured by adoption, quality, and profit potential, when projects are truly and completely free with the collaboration that freedom promotes. The Free Software Foundation has promoted this message for decades. Everyone benefits when commercial OS vendors take note.I've been studying licensing issues and developing case studies in the course of preparing a class on Open Source for the Enterprise. Licensing is, after all, the heart and soul of Open Source. The right approach will encourage project use and foster development while allowing participants to derive value from their contributions, and we can learn from what worked (or didn't) for others.

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