Friday, June 9, 2017

I thought that was Open Source???

I am often asked to look into a product or component where there seems to be confusion as to the licensing model.  It is understandable as copyright owners often evolve their products and services in different directions in response to market demands.  Here are some of the scenarios I commonly discover:

  1. The product is truly open source, but has changed licensing models at least once if not multiple times throughout its life span.  This scenario is fairly easy to address; the user simply has to decide if the latest version with its attendant features and bug fixes is worth the conditions to be compliant with the current license.  If so, great.  If not, then the user can move back in time to a version released under a more palatable license and start from that fork, understanding that there may not be an active community for support and continued development.
  2. The product is not open source at all, but instead is released under some version of the "freemium" model.  A version with restricted functionality or which is time limited can be downloaded with no purchase required.  However, since source code is not provided accompanied by a license allowing perpetual use, creation of derivative works, and further distribution, it is definitely not open source.  Users are often the most disappointed in this outcome as it has somewhat of a deceptive feel.
  3. The product was released under a valid open source license up to a certain point in its development, but then the copyright holder chooses to evolve the code in a proprietary fashion and only offer new releases under commercial licensing terms.  Most often the open source community which grew up around the original code line falls away once they understand there will be no further commitment from the copyright holder to the open source branch.  While this scenario is understandable from the copyright holder's perspective, it can be seen as "burning a bridge" to the open source community.  It would be very difficult to once again leverage the benefits of the open source contribution models once a project owner had followed this path.
  4. By far the most common discovery is that a product has both a community edition and a commercial offering; the latter offering support and the latest features with the community edition lagging behind one or two releases.  This is often encouraging to potential consumers as it gives them a "try before you buy" option or even a chance to influence both versions of the product by becoming an active member of the community.  I usually encourage clients to begin with the community version, get involved and see what they can achieve.  Then if the product becomes a crucial part of their business plan, they have the option to upgrade to the commercial level at any time.

Each of these scenarios can present problems to potential consumers, but with solid information as to licensing lineage there are also opportunities to be found.