At my Fortune 500 company the other day, there was a presentation performed by some of the lawyers about open source software and how it can be used within the company for internal uses and for use in products.  It was interesting and I'm glad I went, but it was held right before lunch and I was very hungry, so I only stayed for the first half.

In the first half of the meeting the lawyers reviewed the requirements of open source licensing, such as the fact that with most licenses you must provide the same freedoms you received and that open source licenses are just like closed source licenses, they use similar laws to be effective.  This is interesting because one word that got a lot of attention is "distribution".  Another topic that came up frequently is "viral" licenses that can "infect" other software (those are words from the presentation, not my words).

What counts as distribution?  Does passing a copy of a software from one employee to another count as distribution?  With pay-for software, often it does, as you're expected to purchase a license for each person or machine that the software executes on.  But sometimes with open source software it can be assumed that distribution means passing the software to another entity, be it another corporate entity or a customer.  Like when I download a copy of Debian GNU/Linux from, that's clearly distribution because I'm not a part of Debian, I'm just a user of Debian.  If I install Debian on my computer and my wife's computer, does that count as distribution?  Do I then have to comply with all of Debian's licensing terms regarding distribution?  It gets tricky, did I just "distribute" a copy to my wife?

The "viral" part is also interesting.  My company doesn't want to have to release large amounts of our currently closed source software to the public (or even just our customers) because we currently make a bunch of money selling said software.  Should a "viral" license "infect" our current closed source software in such a way that we release some software that used something with a "viral" license, we'd then be obligated to give away the source to our closed source (or at least part of it).  It's a legitimate issue for closed source software shops that make money the Microsoft way, by charging for each copy sold.  It also makes sense because some of our software does really neat stuff that not many competitors can do.  It's what sets us apart and we don't want to give our competitors any advantage if we can help it.

I understand that distribution is a strange term that may be defined differently by different people and that makes it tricky.  And I understand that "viral" licenses could force us to disclose source code that's currently secret.  But what saddens me is that we're not changing our business model or internal practices (very much) to take advantage of open source.  Not even in just a few of our products.

Jeff Atwood blogged recently about how routers are becoming a commodity hardware platform because of things like DD-WRT.  My company makes hardware and provides services for both our software and hardware (along with various other things that we do).  It would be interesting to see my company (and / or competing companies) release source code to the public and focus on other avenues of making money, mainly service, support, and hardware.  We'd have to keep ownership of the software in the sense that the Mozilla Foundation retains ownership of Firefox but allows the public to contribute.



12 November 2010