Foolproofing Open Source

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OSS

Imagine Bill Gates sends you an e-mail asking how Microsoft can improve the software license for Windows. He wants to make sure the legal language works better for your business.

Imagine that.

Well, that's exactly what is about to happen with Linux. It's yet another reminder of how Linux and open source are different -- but also good for business. Patents, intellectual property, and software licenses matter in open source. And the legal news on open source continues to be good for companies, consumers, governments, and developers of software.

STRONG FOOTING. Any discussion of open-source software and the law begins with software licenses. The GNU General Public License (GPL) is the world's most widely used open-source software license. It continues to be a very good license for different kinds of software.

The competitors to Linux and open source always stress the risk that users and companies face if they use this software to run their business. You may be surprised to learn that the GPL has never been successfully challenged in court since it was introduced in 1991. That's a very good thing to know if your business runs Linux.

The influence of the GPL extends far deeper than explaining the rights under which tens of millions of people can use software such as Linux. More than 70 percent of all open-source software relies on the GPL.

COURTING CONFUSION. Guess what? In the coming months, your company may very well hear from those involved in updating the GPL. The next version of the license is being drafted now under the direction of the Free Software Foundation. This may be the first time in history that customers themselves have been asked to help define the terms of a software license this important and widely used. That's good for everyone. It also gives another meaning to the "give back" provisions of the GPL. It's a practice that other software creators may want to embrace, I think.

Many advocates of open source, however, have been criticized for the proliferation of too many software licenses. I believe this criticism is justified. Part of my job as the CEO of Open Source Development Labs is working with the development community, large customers of Linux and open-source software, and global information-technology vendors to tap leading legal experts in the industry to try to halt this practice.

Who cares about a lot of licenses? You should.

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