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Open-Source Software: There's No Free Lunch

Open-source software comes with rights and obligations. Here's what that license is all about.

By Kathleen Melymuka
August 23, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Nothing in life is really free, says Larry Rosen, and that includes open-source software. As open-source gains traction in business, it's increasingly important to understand the licenses under which it's used. Rosen, who formerly taught programming and database design at Stanford University, is also a founding partner of Rosenlaw & Einschlag, a technology law firm in Los Altos Hills and Ukiah, Calif., and the author of Open Source Licensing: Software Freedom and Intellectual Property Law (Prentice Hall PTR, 2004). He talked with Computerworld's Kathleen Melymuka about rights and obligations under open-source.

As an IT manager, why do I need to know or care about open-source licensing? Because you or your company is, or soon will be, using open-source software.

I never realized that licensing was even an issue in open-source. Why do I need a license for something that's free? Because of the problem with the word free. It means too many different things in the language. Birds are free to fly. Is open-source software free in that sense?

Then what does it mean? It means you are given the freedom to do certain things with the software -- things like use it, copy it, change it, combine it with other stuff. Because of that, what's important is the license under which those freedoms are protected.

What are the key things to look for in an open-source license? What you need to look for is "What am I being licensed to do?" and "What are the conditions that I'm accepting when I take that license?" And therein lies a tale.

Larry Rosen, the author of <i>Open Source Licensing: Software Freedom and Intellectual Property Law</i>.
Larry Rosen, the author of Open Source Licensing: Software Freedom and Intellectual Property Law.
Are there any deal-breakers I need to really watch out for? What you need to look out for is what you give up. What are the conditions, because nothing is really free in life. What you have to give up can be expensive. It depends on the license. You may have an obligation to expose your own source code, take a risk, distribute it under the same license. It's not just free.

Can you give me an example of something that might catch a company by surprise? The one that most people are concerned about is if you create a derivative work and distribute it, you're required to disclose your changes and distribute it under the same [open-source] license.

Then I can't use open-source and customize my own software? You can. For internal uses, it's your business. But if you choose to share it with some other company, your obligation under some licenses is


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