Developing a FOSS-based Business: Five Questions to Ask

What license will you use? How will you deal with the FOSS community? Several key points need to be addressed. Plus: where to find help.
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Contrary to what you may have heard, free and open source software (FOSS) is not anti-business. But neither is it pro-business. More accurately, FOSS is focused on concerns outside of traditional business, such as user freedom and code quality. For this reason, making the two work together successfully requires special efforts and resources, as well as careful study of the various options.

Fortunately, finding the right interaction is much simpler than it was in the dot-com days, when business first noticed FOSS. Back then, FOSS businesses were mostly pioneers, and had to be mostly dependent on themselves. Now, however, web searches will yield thousands of results on business-related FOSS issues, and both businesses and non-profit groups exist to lend you assistance.

For those thinking of making FOSS part of their business, or those who -- like many today -- have suddenly discovered that FOSS is part of their business and need to regain control of the situation, here’s a guide to some of the considerations, as well as a few resources to bring you up to speed.

1) How does FOSS fit into your business?

The first decision you have to make about FOSS is whether your company will be a user of FOSS or a contributor and distributor of it.

If your company simply plans to use FOSS, then your path is relatively straightforward. Several of the considerations mentioned here will be irrelevant to you, and you may be able to incorporate FOSS into your business without having any contact with the community.

Redistribution is also straightforward. Your main concern will be that you comply with the license under which the software is released. If you don't comply, you may find yourself the defendant in a lawsuit, just as you would if you violated the license of a proprietary license -- and FOSS licenses, while only lightly tested so far in court, have a highly successful record in legal proceedings. In fact, violators typically back down rather than contest FOSS licenses.

However, if you plan to include FOSS as part of your product, your concerns are more complicated. In particular, you need to decide how FOSS will fit into your business plan.

You can find a summary of the basic options for FOSS business plans in Eric S. Raymond's The Magic Cauldron. However, at the risk of over-generalizing, you have two main options: Make the software free and make a living selling expertise and services, the way that Red Hat has done, or maintain two separate versions or licensing options for your software, one free and one proprietary, the way that Trolltech has done.

2) What licenses will you use?

Redistributors of FOSS generally have no choice except to redistribute it under the same license that they received it under. However, if you are releasing your own FOSS, then the matter requires careful consideration.

The Free Software Foundation maintains a list of FOSS licenses. And so does the Open Source Initiative.

As you will soon find, the most popular FOSS licenses are the second and third versions of the GNU General Public License (GPL). However, depending on your business plan, the GPL may not best suit your needs. For instance, if you are maintaining two separate versions of your software, you might consider the Lesser GNU General Public License, which is designed for dual licensing. This is the path taken by Sun Microsystems, which releases the OpenOffice.org office suite as free software under the Lesser GPL; it releases StarOffice, an enhanced version of the OpenOffice.org code, under a proprietary license.

If you are unsure what license is appropriate for your business, for a fee you can consult either the Free Software Foundation Compliance Lab, or the Software Freedom Law Center. The Software Freedom Law Center is also a place where your legal counsel can get education in FOSS licensing.

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