Open source software is gradually becoming more mainstream and widely used, in fact International Data Group analysts have predicted that the OSS marketplace will be worth $35 billion by 2008. In light of this growing trend towards mainstream use, this article provides a brief overview and a look at some recent developments.
What is OSS?
Broadly speaking, OSS is software that is freely available (without discrimination), can be copied, modified and re-distributed. In return for this 'free' licence, the user is generally required to provide access to the full source code of any modifications and to licence such modifications on the same free and open terms.
What are the benefits?
One of the benefits is that because anyone is free to access and develop the software, it evolves much more quickly and efficiently than it would in the traditional proprietary model (where the source code is typically kept secret). Bugs or defects are quickly noticed and rectified.
Users customising the software are obliged to share the source code in their developments for free. This leads to reduced development time, thoroughly tested software and ultimately reduced costs for the end user.
Examples of popular OSS products are the Linux operating system, Apache web server, My SQL database and OpenOffice, but there are many more.
What are the considerations?
By virtue of the 'open' nature of OSS, there are elements of risk that require to be considered. This is particularly true where a developer or their client wants to integrate OSS into their own proprietary code and then commercially exploit the derived product. One concern is that developers will inadvertently integrate their proprietary software with OSS and will be obliged under the licence terms to disclose the source code.
Some other considerations associated with using and licensing OSS are: infringement of Intellectual Property Rights; non-negotiable licence terms; lack of helpdesk/support and a lack of warranties or guarantees.
· GPL Review Licence terms do vary, but one of the most common OSS licences is the General Public Licence (GPL), which is used by Linux operating system and My SQL. This licence (in the version 2 format) has been the same for nearly 15 years, however a draft version 3 was released in January this year and it is expected to be the topic of debate this year.
It is beyond the scope of this article to go into any detail on the changes to the licence, but the licence and commentary are available at http://gplv3.fsf.org/.
OSS licences haven't yet been tested in the UK courts. There is therefore a great deal of uncertainty surrounding their validity and interpretation. The GPL has however been tested in the German courts who held that this type of licence was valid. This provides some indication as to the approach a UK court may take.
Generally speaking, there has not been a great deal of litigation worldwide, however there is a long-running case in the US between SCO and IBM. Very briefly, SCO are alleging that as a result of a misappropriation of their source code by IBM, some of their proprietary software has been copied and ended up in the Linux operating system. This OSS system is now a rival to SCO's proprietary operating system.
SCO are seeking licence fees and damages from IBM. SCO also have various actions against other companies which have been stayed pending the outcome of this case. Questions have been raised over the quality of evidence SCO have so far provided, saying that it does not show specific instances of copyright infringement. A trial date has been set for February 2007.
The outcome of this case could potentially have implications for all OSS applications which have been based on or contain some proprietary software.
Towards the end of last year, a new insurance product was released that seeks to address the risks faced by companies that include or rely upon elements of Linux and other OSS in their commercial products or internal IT infrastructure. Cover of up to $10 million is available. Companies may use this to protect against giving warranties in a corporate transaction or simply to provide cover where their commercial product incorporates OSS. This new product again demonstrates the expanding use of OSS.
Proceed with caution
If you are considering joining the ever-increasing numbers who use OSS and enjoying the benefits, make sure you carry out as much research into the OSS as possible. Read the licence terms and ensure that you can happily comply. Be aware of the considerations and take simple precautions like ensuring that your organisation keeps good records of any OSS you do use.