Out in the open

Out in the open

Open source is changing and the result of its widespread adoption may become a mélange of 'open' licensing terms and conditions.

Any discussions about open-source software with IT vendor executives and CIOs indicate an increasingly rapid adoption of open source in user enterprises of all sizes, and within software and services vendors' offerings. But it is becoming apparent that the greatest presence of open-source software will actually be as components of other offerings of applications, systems and services, and as such it will be "hidden". Current vendor and open-source community disputes over licensing terms and conditions could bring that hidden software - and significant legal issues - to the surface.

While open source offers many advantages to both users and vendors, an increasingly influential issue remains unsettled, and could have significant impacts on both.

While most user and vendor executives think of open-source licensing as General Public Licence (GPL), Berkley Software Distribution (BSD), and perhaps one or two others, in reality there are probably more than 1000 types of open source in the market. That number is likely to increase - as are the complexities of the licences themselves, and the issues regarding licence compliance.

This licensing fragmentation is significant due to two factors: the spreading and increasingly hidden presence of open-source software in solutions and services; and user executives' lack of concern about the risks of open-source licensing.

All of the recent surveys that I have seen show that IT executives will almost always at least consider and evaluate open-source alternatives for IT solutions. This signifies tremendous user executive-level acceptance of open-source software (and technologies) - creating a huge and growing market for open-source software.

Open-source vendors differ widely on what "open" means when it comes to licensing their technologies. Many, if not most, still subscribe to the traditional GPL, which more or less means that anyone can access and change source code in any way. Those changes can then become part of general releases of that software if the Open Source Initiative (OSI) community accepts them.

Other vendors, such as Sun and MySQL, utilise licence terms that enable user communities to access and change source code, but retain at least some intellectual property rights over the source kernel - and any formal, official releases. So the vendor may or may not choose to adopt and release such changes in the next official version.

Still, other vendors develop "open" licences that vary from user to user or from vendor to vendor, with varying degrees of rights to access and change intellectual property ownership. The growth of open source also brings with it more users and vendors hacking into code, adapting it to their own needs and packaging it as a new or improved solution, whether for internal use or for resale.

The result of open source's widespread adoption is quite likely to become a mélange of "open" licensing terms and conditions. To understand what this may mean, here's one blogger comparing licensing terms: "What sort of Frankenlicence would apply ... if I wished to release my changes under GPL but the original was MPL or MSPL? Every other line of code under a different licence?"

The short answer is, yes. Open-source licensing is likely to explode or extend into multiple formats, to the point where we will see users of a single solution from one vendor that contains open-source code from multiple vendors being required to comply with multiple licensing terms simultaneously.

Some consistent, basic terms and conditions will probably continue to apply, and in the longer term the OSI influence is likely to hold sway and help bring back vendors and users into a more cohesive community. But the short term looks extremely messy.

So what can be done?

Given that a common reason given by user executives for adopting open-source software is "the ability to adapt and refine source code", the likelihood of user enterprises violating or infringing upon multiple licence terms increases greatly.

Consequently, user enterprises should review their open-source licensing agreements, audit their use of open source and create formal policies for managing source code, especially mixed source code.

Consulting firms should see software and vendor licensing and compliance practices grow in the short term. System integrators and other consultants can provide significant value to user enterprises in assisting them to audit the use of open source and in creating formal policies for managing source code.

Software and tools vendors should likewise see significant growth in this area. Unless independent software vendors - especially Microsoft, IBM, Google and so on - can agree on open-source licensing terms and conditions, the confusion that is currently in the marketplace will grow and may eventually inhibit the growth of open source adoption.

Chris Morris Chris Morris is director of services, IDC Asia Pacific. Email comments to

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