Abuse of Open Licenses

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Typology of abuses of Open Licenses, by Florian v. Samson.

This text is licensed under "Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 (CC BY-SA 3.0)" license <http://creativecommons.org/about/license/>.


Florian Samson:

"F/OSS-licenses (conforming to the almost equivalent definitions by the Free Software Foundation (FSF) [1] and the Open Source Initiative (OSI) > ; [2]) can be utilised in multiple different ways. Almost none of the usages described below can be clearly called an abuse, as they are mostly covered by the corresponding licenses. There is absolutely no way of limiting the use of F/OSS-licenses and -products to the "good" use cases, just "the way it was meant to be". "Fortunately", I must add, as everyone's definition of "good" and "right" largely varies.

0. "Just take it"

Grab F/OSS-stuff at your choice and utilise it internally for whatever you like to: Just use it // Enhance it // Found a project/product upon it.

All BSD-style licenses allow for that (e.g. MIT-, X.org-, the three classical BSD-licenses), but you are not going to tell anybody, anyway. Hence other F/OSS-licenses are basically O.K., too, as long as you take care that nobody finds out what is inside of your product (try obfuscating that fact a bit). And if somebody really finds out and pulls you to court, a settlement of a few 10.000 $ is usually sufficient to silence those F/OSS enthusiasts.

Examples: CISCO IOS, presumably some small parts in Micosoft Windows, etc.

1. "Marketing only"

Develop in a closed manner, without any chance for others to contribute, practically.

Set up a nice web site, mailing-list(s), wiki to create the "right" impression of your "F/OSS"-project, and generate some traffic / content there, but nothing too significant. If you did it right, after a while some people will automatically show up and perpetually generate traffic / insignificant content without much ado from your side.

"Release late, release rarely": significantly delay the release of the sources (at least 6 months) after releasing a compiled version (potentially, but not necessarily only available for money), and take your time for a source release (at least 15 months past the last). Reasons to name: Preparation of the source "to be ready for the public", sorting out licensing issues, "Our feature driven development aims at timely product delivery to our customers, not at the source releases for the interested public, you must understand", etc..

Extra evilness: Prove that you perfectly understand to play with F/OSS- licenses by releasing only the fragments of the source you definitly have to, licensewise. Argue that the other portions are not derived work and contain pieces which are licensed (proprietary) from third parties or are patent protected. Hence nobody will be able to rebuild and re-release your "F/OSS"-product in its completeness.

Examples: Microsoft WiX (on Sourceforge) & ODF Filter Plugin (also on SF), potentially OGD / Traversaltech / Techsource, etc..

2. "Marketing & Maximise scoop up"

Prove that you well understand the F/OSS-principle "do not reinvent the wheel", by thourougly investigating the F/OSS-landscape for components from vivid F/OSS-projects you can utilise. This minimises your own implementation efforts.

Do not feed back any enhancements or bugfixes to third party components to the upstream projects, as this can turn out to be labour intensive and would derogate the technical advantages of your product (actually this mindset turns out to completely wrong in the long run, as it usually causes major efforts to regulary integrate upstream enhancements and bugfixes in your private branch(es) of the source(s)).

Also apply all of 1. "Marketing only", but you can tone down on real marketing, as your primary goal is to maximise the scooping!

Examples: Tom-Tom-Firmware, Google-Chrome, Apple-MacOsX (Apple is slightly getting better over the years), Microsoft SfU ("Services for UNIX", which started as "UNIX services for Windows NT4" in 1998), Microsoft WindowsCE, etc.

3. "Marketing, Scoop up & Feed back upstream only when necessary"

You have understood or learned the hard way that not feeding back anything to the upstream projects backfires sooner or later, as described in 2. "Marketing & Maximise scoop up". Hence you feed back your enhancements and bugfixes to the upstream projects where you feel it is expedient and really necessary, but you still perceive this as tedious work worth avoiding whenever possible.

Still you adhere to most of the "golden rules" in 2. "Marketing & Maximise scoop up" and therefore also to 1. "Marketing only". Also, you may have realised that you can also scoop up labour, if you really allow for volunteers to contribute. Thus you may implement practices to skim the best people and ideas in order to enhance your products.

Finally, you understood that a public bug-tracker gives you access to thousands of beta-testers you can spare inhouse, a working public mailing list with developer-feedback provides feature-requests really fulfilling the users needs, and a wiki or alike significantly reduces ("auto- fulfills") support requests.

Examples: Apple-Safari, good parts of SUNs software stack (esp. Java, Solaris, etc.), Microsoft CodePlex (with many projects e.g. IronPython, IronRuby, etc.), Canonical Ubuntu, Google Summer of Code ("GSOC"), products on Mozilla.com, etc.

4. "Developing _in_ the public, Developing _for_ upstream"

Well, the title says it; the only variable is who can contribute and how easily. This makes up the whole (IMHO vastly academic) debate about extremely open ("everybody can directly contribute", e.g. Wikipedia) and closed ("we have a core team / maintainer who decides what goes in or not") development model, with many nuances in between. "Model as it fits", is my suggestion.

It makes life simpler, if you are maintaining / hosting projects yourself, so upstream is yours / in-house. If that is not feasible, pay / employ developers in upstream projects.

"Release early, release often", shortens feed-back cycles and accelerates product development.

Access to the complete project sources is implicitly given, as everything happens in the public.

Examples: Debian (simply defines "upstream is always us", as if all the F/OSS-world would be developing for Debian), RedHat (most products), OpenSuSE, Mandriva (most products), products on Mozilla.org, etc.; and in small doses: SUN, SGI, Intel, AMD, Hewlett-Packard (HP), etc., etc..

This is all, but new: Cisco has taken BSD to found its IOS in the 1980ies and it has taken SUN three decades to go (or being pushed by commercial failures) from 0. to 3. / 4.. Even Microsoft crawled from 0. to 3. (<http://www.codeplex.com/>, <http://port25.technet.com/>) in the last 15 years."


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