Open source and software licensing

It seems that SCO is making another attempt to hurt the open source movement by claiming that the GPL is unconstitutional and violates federal patent and copyright laws.  While many are not concerned and call this a publicity stunt by SCO, the discussion of open source software licenses does remind me of a panel that I recently saw at the Goldman Sachs Software Retreat 2 weeks ago.

On the panel you had representatives of RedHat, MySQl, and JBoss combined with the perspective of a large IT buyer, the CTO of Goldman Sachs.  While I will not fill you in on all of the gory details, one thread did stand out in my mind.  It goes like this:

It seems that many of the bigger open source players are building out their own stacks ala Microsoft and others in the pursuit of growth and profits like traditional closed-sourced software companies.  Isn’t this the antithesis of what open source stands for?  Rick Sherlund, Goldman’s software analyst, says that it makes sense from a financial perspective since it allows vendors to cross-sell and lock-in the customer – customer retention is a good thing after all, isn’t it?  While all of the open source players did their best to dodge this question and claim that they are really open, MySQl was the only company that really seemed credible here as its goal was to be part of everyone’s stack, including the Microsoft .NET one.  JBoss and RHAT clearly seemed to be building their own middleware and open source stacks while at the same time claiming an open architecture. 

The interesting point was served up by Michael Dubno, CTO of Goldman Sachs.  He specifically told the vendors that the danger of the open source stacks is that it does create lock-in and that open-interoperability is what is most important to him.  He will go somewhere else if the open source guys end up limiting his options-he needs great service not extra features.  Moving on, he points out that the biggest gaiting factor for him in terms of adopting open source is making sure the legal issues will not come back to haunt him.  Goldman reviews every license agreement and makes a determination of which licenses make sense and which do not.  What Michael wants is integration from a legal perspective, not a feature perspective.  He claims the biggest cost to Goldman is not 2 products, but the cost in service and supporting 2 different contracts-he wants more standardization of contracts.

I found this to be an interesting point. I have seen a number of open source related software plays and it seems that many are trying to create their own unique twists on licensing.  While Goldman’s CTO is one data point, I would encourage companies looking to open source some of their software to try not to be too cute and design their own unique open source license but rather look to leverage existing ones like GPL.  One of the biggest barriers to a large enterprise using your software will be the software license itself.  The other point is to not forget why lots of companies are using your product in the first place – be open!

Published by Ed Sim

founder boldstart ventures, over 20 years experience seeding and leading first rounds in enterprise startups, @boldstartvc, googlization of IT, SaaS 3.0, security, smart data; cherish family time + enjoy lacrosse + hockey

3 comments on “Open source and software licensing”

  1. Microsoft’s tactics re: Linux are pure Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt. Their fear-mongering on licensing issues are a perfect example. Who is stoking the fear of litigation, if not Microsoft and Microsoft-backed companies? Their tactics will ultimately backfire, because Linux actually is truly more reliable and secure than any Windows server based system.

  2. It looks to me that many of the open source players, especially of Linux, do not believe in open source, but have been using GPL as a mere convenience. Their target is to own a new Operating System to rival Windows and if that means emulating Microsoft, then they have a proven model. Changing the GPL is therefore vital to this end.

  3. I think that there will be many who take open source and make it closed source and that is their right to do that. Of course once a user gets into the open source market they will tend to stay with open source.

    These organizations have to look at creating new ways to make money and they will succeed. The product is free, but added services cost. Such as the physical boxed set, tech-support, printed documentation, special add-ons, signed autographs of the developers, etc. Different donation systems.

    I think Firefox is best example of how to do this. The community becomes invested and thus they support the system.

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