What Comes First, License or Business Model?

Lora Bentley

When you choose to open source code, how do you determine which license under which to release it? What do you consider?


Nearly two years ago, Sun Microsystems' chief open source officer, Simon Phipps, spoke to IT Business Edge about open source license choices. Phipps said a company's business model is the strongest driver in its choice of license:

[T]he license defines how developers will be able to engage with the source code. Businesses trying to pioneer a new market will typically choose Class A licenses [i.e., "Gimme credit"]. Those trying to promote a development community around a code base will typically choose a Class B license. ["Gimme fixes"]. Those aiming to develop a unique line of business in a highly competitive existing market will typically choose a Class C license ["Gimme it all"] because only the copyright holder in a Class C license has the flexibility to act outside the scope of the license.

Tim Bowden and The 451 Group's Matthew Aslett have been engaged in a similar discussion for the last few weeks, but theirs is a bit more specific. As Aslett sees it, Bowden is suggesting the GNU General Public License is a better choice than BSD "for vendors establishing commercial dominance around an open source project." Aslett, however, says that the more successful open source companies are built around code released under the GNU Lesser General Public License or the Mozilla Public License.


Even so, it's not necessarily the license that makes the difference, Aslett says. It's the business models that those licenses allow. He looks at EnterpriseDB's "proprietary extensions" model, Covalent's "support services" model, MySQL's "dual licensing" model and Red Hat's "mandatory subscription" model as examples of successful ventures.


He says, however:

[M]ore research is needed into the difference between captive GPL projects created by commercial operations and commercial operations that have emerged from community GPL projects.

Seems to me the question of whether a company should determine its business model or its license first is almost the chicken or the egg. Depends on whom you ask and the circumstances that person/company finds itself in at the time.

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