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The Basics of Open Source Licensing

March 05, 2009

by: M.G. Avanzado

Open Source Licensing is a form of copyright licensing for computer software that allows any of its users to modify or re-distribute the software’s source code without having to compensate the original author. It largely revolves around the assignment of the rights of the original developer to subsequent users in terms of copying the work, distributing the work, and making derivative works. It is subject to various forms of restrictions, which determine the type of Open Source License.

Roots of Open Source Licensing

Open Source Licensing began in 1998, with the release of the Open Source Definition by the Open Source Movement.

Just as the Internet began going mainstream, members of the Open Source Movement, a group evolved from the Free Software Movement of 1983, decided to establish an “Open Source” philosophy, which would define the terms of usage, modification, and redistribution of “Open Source” software. The Open Source Initiative thus came up with a 10-point definition of what constitutes “Open Source” software and provided restrictions for its distribution.

According to this definition, software may only be considered to be “Open Source” if it allows for: (1) free redistribution of the software, (2) the inclusion of the source code in distributing the software, (3) modification and derivative works distributed under the same license; (4) preservation of the integrity of the author's source code; (5) no discrimination against persons or groups; (6) no discrimination against fields of endeavor; (7) free distribution of the license; (8) licenses that will not be specific to a product; (9) licenses that will not restrict the development of other software; and (10) licenses that will be technology-neutral.

At present, there are over 60 Open Source Licenses that have been approved by the Open Source Initiative through its license review process, which entails a detailed scrutiny of whether a license and corresponding software conform to the 10-point “Open Source” definition.

Types of Open Source Licenses

There are four basic types of Open Source Licenses: Academic, Reciprocal, Standards, and Content Licenses.

Academic Licenses virtually have no restrictions. Here, end users may modify or redistribute the source code freely, with the exceptions of having to give proper credit to a code’s various developers and preventing the use of the original author’s name in marketing.

Reciprocal Licenses are just like Academic Licenses, except with the added restriction that any resulting software must be distributed for free and the source code must be made available to any subsequent user free of charge. This was done to ensure that subsequent developers would not be able to begin charging subsequent users for use of software based on a source code that they were able to obtain free-of-charge. Reciprocal Licenses are also called “Copyleft” licenses as their terms are usually an anti-thesis of the rights of a copyright holder under Copyright laws.

Standards Licenses require subsequent developers of a source code to use certain standards or documentation in modifying the original code. This is to enable earlier authors to access subsequent modifications with ease and continue work on the code to further develop the software involved.

Content Licenses involve licensing more than just the source code. It includes in the license other materials used in the software, such as audio, video, graphics, and user-readable text.

A common factor found in the different types of Open Source Licenses is the idea of allowing any source code to evolve to its fullest functional potential, without suffering from the same constraints of proprietary software development. This is the core idea behind the Open Source Movement, from where Open Source Licensing originated.

Pros and Cons

Like all forms of licensing, the Open Source variety poses unique advantages and disadvantages, depending on the user and the type of license.

The fact that the software, source code, and license are freely distributed may work in favor of some start-up users but hinder immediate profit for other well-established developers with appropriate funding. Conversely, as the only fees that may be charged under an Open Source License are costs of reproduction or from the sale of hardware technology on which the software is based, established developers with funding will have an easier time maximizing the profit potential of particular “Open Source” software.

In the same vein, as each developer owns the copyright to respective improvements in the source code, liability for software failure and infringement suits are minimized and allows for disclaimed liability for such damages. However, the same distributed copyright ownership may make future proprietary distribution and profit sharing in work derived from material under an academic license difficult to manage.

Ultimately, the choice of what Open Source License to use, or if such should be used at all, will depend on the business strategy and circumstances of the individual developer. A potential developer must, however, bear in mind that the huge collaborative potential posed by an Open Source License will necessarily be offset by having to surrender substantially all of the rights one is granted by Copyright law.

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