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How Open Source Licensing Works

Some of the most common questions our clients ask about procuring open source software.

The business world is competitive by nature. An organization’s intellectual property and the custom software that costs valuable time and money to develop is an incredibly prized possession - one that’s important to protect. That’s why the idea of procuring an open source solution (free software that can be used by anyone) can be such a foreign and challenging concept for many in the business world.

In this article, we’ll walk through some of the most common questions that clients have about procuring open source software, so that you’ll understand how this software is licensed, what you can and can't do with it, and hopefully help you make an informed decision about procuring and extending open source software services.

How does open source licensing work, exactly?

Open source software turns the traditional software licensing model on its head by allowing users to modify and freely redistribute software. Open source is defined by criteria intended to promote and protect software freedom, and support the communities which contribute to the success of open source projects.

Are there any laws that prevent someone from making changes to the software and repackaging the entire thing for sale?

Many open source projects are able to survive and thrive because there are protections in place that prevent someone from turning the project into something proprietary. Drupal and many other open source projects are covered under the GNU Public License or GPL, one of the most common open source licenses. The GPL prevents anyone from distributing the software that it covers without also sharing its source code. This ensures that the project covered by the GPL remains open source.

Does this mean that if I pay a contractor for custom code to be developed that adds to an existing GPL-covered open source project, I’ll be required to release that work to the public for free?

The short answer is simply “no”. If you work on or pay for someone to work on custom code that modifies a GPL-covered open source project, you won’t be required to give that work away to the community at large.

The GPL only requires that you release your source code if you plan to sell or release (“distribute”) your custom code. If you’re just planning to use the code internally, or as part of a hosted solution that you control, there’s no need to share it with the world.

But shouldn’t I share the code? Isn’t that how open source works?

Many users of open source software do decide to share their source code with the world through contributions to the open source project in question, such as a contributed module in Drupal. There is no requirement to do this, but there are some advantages.

Source code is the actual text document that a software developer creates. It’s uncompiled, meaning that it’s written in programming language that can be read and edited by a human. The reason that distinction is important here is that source code is raw and can be inspected and modified. This practice helps improve both the security and the usability of the software.

By sharing your source code, other people may decide to improve on it and fix it for free, because it’s mutually beneficial. It’s much harder to staff a team of internal developers to keep your code tested, maintained, and bug-free while planning an improvement roadmap to add new features and create new software integrations. Having others work on your code means it is made better both for you and for them. Sometimes the advantage of having software that works really well and has updates and features added more quickly outweighs the advantage of keeping your innovation secret from your competitors.

Curious if open source software is right for your business? Read our post on how you can save money using open source technologies.

Come speak with us at DrupalCon Seattle and learn about the open source federated search application we recently released.

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