Where to Advocate Open Source?

The main order of the day was to clarify our objectives. One big question, among others, was to determine whether the event target non-profit organizations or be opened up to all interested organizations. I support a long term goal of supporting open source technologies across all sectors. I believe, however, we may get best results by placing the immediate focus on non-profit organizations.

Open source encompasses a lot of things: development methodologies, community support, and the like. The most basic manifestation of open source software, however, is its license: the legal document that specifies your rights and responsibilities as a software user. Open source software is defined by a license that provides you the right to use, copy, modify, and distribute the software. Traditional proprietary software only gives you a right to use. You can't change it, you can't redistribute it, and you probably can't make copies of it (except to backup or run).

The open source software license grants significant rights to the user. These rights come with limits and restrictions. After all, if the author didn't want any restrictions, they wouldn't have created a license at all, and instead place the software in the public domain.

There are different kinds of limitations you'll find in open source licenses. One popular limitation is requiring attribution to the author when you redistribute copies. Another is a limitation on liability: if the software breaks you cannot sue the author. One particular license called the GNU General Public License (GPL) asserts severe limitations on how you can use the software. It requires, for instance, that if you make changes to or a derivative work of a GPL licensed product, you must effectively place your work under the GPL too. That is, you can't keep your changes secret, you must make them open source too.

This issue creates one of the critical distinctions between non-profit and for profit use of open source. Companies often are concerned that when they use GPL licensed software when they develop new products or services, they may be forced reveal their development to the public. When Linksys, for instance, used the Linux operating system in their WRT54G wireless network gateway, they were forced to provide significant portions of their development to the public. That's a hard pill for many companies to swallow. (In fact, Linksys initially failed to open source the required pieces, which exposed them to community backlash and possible legal action. It turns out that when they came into compliance it opened up a whole new secondary market for them.)

Open source products can have a significant impact on a company's product development cycle. Non-profit organizations, on the other hand, are rarely affected the same way. They have no development cycle to impact; they typically aren't selling a product or service.

This means most for profit organizations are going to have a built-in reluctance against open source. It also means you need to spend more time helping them understand the impact of software licensing. You don't have to confront these issues (as much) when advocating open source software to non-profit organizations.

The issue is not that open source software is bad for commercial organizations, or that it can't benefit them. The issue is that it's going to be a harder sell and will take more work. I think we should do that work, but let's pick the easier task first. If the goal is increased open source adoption, then let's advocate to the non-profit organizations, where the barriers are lower.

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re: Where to Advocate Open Source?

Note that the GPL only kicks in if you distribute binaries. Companies may make modifications for their own use and are not required to share any source. This is an important point when the software is part of a service or internal tool rather than a product.

re: Where to Advocate Open Source?

Thought I'd post a resource for folks to follow, related to this issue: NOSI - the NonProfit Open Source Initiative.