Almost every company today uses some kind of enterprise software to make operations more efficient. Finding a standard software in the market that is perfectly suited to your needs can be difficult, but custom software can be prohibitively expensive. A common middle ground is modifying existing software to better fit your needs. To do this, though, you need the source code, which is why open source software is being used more and more by businesses.
Open source licensing offers a way for companies to find and customize vital software applications at a much lower cost. Plus, it facilitates the exchange of ideas in the development of new applications. These trends make understanding open source licensing vital for every company today.
What Is Open Source Licensing?
Open source licensing is a way of making software (or in some cases, other copyrighted works) freely available to the public to use and modify. Open source licensing does not give away the copyright to public domain, but rather grants specific permissions of the developer’s choosing to the public. The work still must be attributed to the original author and has copyright protections in place for abuses of the license.
Under the definition agreed upon by the Open Source Initiative in the early 1990s, all software issued under open source licenses must have the following attributes:
- Free redistribution. All open source work must be freely available to anyone who desires to use it.
- Available source code. Open source software developers must give easy and cost-free access to the source code.
- Permissive of modifications and derivative works. Any modifications and derivative works of the original code must be allowed.
- Non-discriminatory. The software must be available to any person for any use in any field of endeavor.
- Open licenses. Licenses must be truly free, that is, not limited to a product, technology, related software, or other specific ties.
Common Types of Open Source Licenses
There are many types of Open Source Licenses used in software development. These all fulfill the basic attributes of open source licensing, but each has its own intricacies, permissions and restrictions. The following four are some of the most common that you should know about:
- GNU General Public License. This open source license is the most common and the most protective of developers’ rights. Users can copy, distribute, and modify the software as desired, so long as the new code is released under a GNU GPL license too.
- BSD Licenses. These are the most flexible and permissive types of open source licenses. They permit unlimited redistribution of software for any purpose as long as its copyright notices and the license’s disclaimers of warranty are maintained.
- Apache Licenses. These licenses are friendliest to users, as they can be applied to both copyrights and patents. Rights given under Apache licenses are perpetual and irrevocable, so developers cannot change their minds and terminate licenses at a later date, causing problems for uses in derivative works.
- Creative Commons (CC). Not all CC licenses technically qualify as open source licenses, as creators can exclude commercial use and derivative works if they wish. Make sure to read the exact permissions before employing a CC licensed work. For this reason, CC licenses are more commonly used in design work than in software development.
Open Source vs. Copyleft Licenses
Many people associate open source and copyleft licenses, but while they are often used together, the two are separate requirements. Copyleft licenses are those that require any derivative works to use the same license as the original work. Basically, copyleft licenses ensure open source licensing of any downstream derivatives of the original code.
While most copyleft licenses strictly qualify as open source licenses, not all open source licenses contain copyleft provisions. For example, GNU GPL licenses are famous for copyleft restrictions, while BSD licenses rarely contain such provisions. It’s important to note, however, that copyleft restrictions only apply to distributing derivatives, not creating them for private use. Many companies worry that they will have to release all revisions of open source software back to the public, but while technically created as an open source project, this does not apply if the company’s version is not made public.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Open Source Software in a Business
Open source software can be an excellent option for companies to fulfill enterprise software needs. It is usually free and easily customizable to the needs of your company, thanks to easy access to the source code. Another advantage is that you do not get locked into using a particular vendor’s system and related compatible products. Plus, these programs are regularly updated by developers, which means updates create more secure, less buggy, and higher quality software.
Of course, there are disadvantages of using open source software. As an end user, you’ll have little to no control over how the software evolves, even it it runs counter to your needs. You’ll have less support any typically less user-friendly interfaces. Finally, there is always the risk of malicious users exploiting found vulnerabilities of the software. Generally, the disadvantages can be countered by using a hybrid of the public software version customized to suit your company’s needs.
Can open source content be used for commercial purposes?
Yes. Any open source content can be used for commercial purposes. Of course, some licenses require derivative works to be open source under copyleft provisions, which means that you cannot always distribute derivative software for profit. Still, companies have the same rights as other users to take advantage of open source software—even to use it towards earning a profit.