Open Source by the Rules

September 26, 2010

I’ve written here a number of times about open-source software, and it will come as no surprise to any regular reader that I am, on the whole, a fan of the idea.  I have been using the open-source Linux OS on my personal PCs for more than seven years, as well as open-source applications like Firefox and Open Office; I’ve made a few modest contributions to open-source projects.  So I was interested to see an article in the New York Times about some of the efforts that are put into enforcing the licenses under which open-source software is distributed.

For anyone who is not familiar with open-source, I should probably start by explaining that open-source software is not in the public domain; like proprietary software, it is copyrighted and distributed under a license agreement.  Indeed, the entire open-source concept relies on copyright law to make its license agreements enforceable.  Probably the most well-known open-source license is the General Public License [GPL] developed by the Free Software Foundation, and used in many open-source projects, including Linux.  The license terms basically provide that you are free to use and modify the software, for which the source code is provided, in whatever way suits your purpose.  You may also re-distribute the software, with modifications, provided that the re-distribution is done on the same (GPL) terms.  This means that, if you re-distribute modified software, you must provide the source code, and must grant the recipients the same rights that you have.  You may distribute your modified version free of charge, or you may charge a fee; but you are not allowed to vary the license terms.  (This is the origin of the description of open-source software as “free as in speech, not free as in beer”.)

Many manufacturers of commercial products have made the choice to incorporate open-source software in those products.  Linux software is used, for example,  in TiVo video boxes, in Linksys routers, and is the basis for Google’s Android operating system for mobile devices, as well as its forthcoming Chrome OS.

As related in the article, one problem that crops up sometimes is that the vendors do not necessarily comply with the terms of the GPL or other open-source license.

… some companies, even some technology-savvy ones, may be violating the rather easy-to-follow requirements associated with free software licenses. Typically, these include making tweaked versions of a free software product available to the public, or simply giving credit to the original developers.

Some of the companies in this position claim that they have violated the license terms out of ignorance.  Although this may be true to some extent, it is difficult to imagine that they would start to incorporate software from a proprietary vendor, such as Microsoft or Oracle, without doing their homework.

Although a few large companies have been sued by the Software Freedom Law Center for license violations, most are contacted initially by volunteers, like Mr Armijn Hemel, profiled in the article, who attempt to get the vendors to voluntarily bring their products into compliance.

These days, Mr. Hemel tries to find a contact in the legal department at the companies to discuss the issues. If no response or action follows, a cease-and-desist letter arrives. When the problem lingers, a lawsuit follows.

There are also efforts underway to make it easier for companies to comply with the license requirements.

The nonprofit Linux Foundation has started a program meant to teach companies how to comply with open-source licenses. Cisco, Google, Intel, I.B.M., Sony and a host of other companies have backed the effort.

Personally, I’m pleased to see these efforts, and hope that they can help us all avoid the kind of acrimony common in claims of “software piracy”.

Incidentally, if you are interested in the legal details of open-source software, the Groklaw site is an excellent resource.  It was set up initially to follow the case of SCO v. IBM (which itself has interesting open-source aspects), but has branched out to cover much more.

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