Saturday, 17 November 2007

The Price of "Free" Software

The recent Open Source Summit, alerted me to the fact that perhaps relatively few business people realise the commercial implications of relying on open source software.

A glance at the excellent programme shows why this should come as no surprise: there's an awful lot to get your head around just to understand what open source software is in the first place.

But, let’s not lose sight of the wood for all the trees (the history and philosophical debate between the Open Source Initiative and the Free Software Foundation, the vast array of licences and nor the complexities of GPL2 vs GPL3 and AGPL3).

The fact is that software developers can easily import any computer code via the Internet without fully understanding the licence obligations. What seems "free" code can actually come with an obligation to licence the source code for you proprietary product to the world, free of charge.

So, as Kat McCabe of Black Duck explained, sophisticated buyers of businesses are now requiring an audit of the source code for the target's IT systems and products in an attempt to exploit the target's inadvertent use of open source software, and reduce the price for acquiring the business. Overseeing that due diligence is Jim Markwith's legal role at Microsoft. And it explains the incredible degree of licensing rigour imposed on Nokia's open source programme by Dietmar Tallroth.

This is not an argument against using open source software. But anyone with an eye on the value of their business ought to get a handle on how their developers are operating and consider regular audits of their source code.

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