I wrote a recent blog post on which FOSS license to use and it provoked Twitter commentary that wanted more discussion on how FOSS license choice can affect a company’s business model. I’m still not sure I agree that the FOSS license dictates the business model or that the business model dictates the license. A few examples probably better illustrate what I’m trying to describe.
Let’s look at each of Red Hat and Linux, and MySQL AB and the MySQL database (before the cascading acquisitions). Both open source projects are licensed using Version 2 of the GNU General Public License (GPLv2).
Red Hat packages an asset that they neither own nor control. They influence the Linux kernel through participation in the Linux kernel community. They use the Linux kernel in their Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora Project operating systems. They surround the kernel with considerable other software (most of it free and open source project-based from a collection of other project communities in which they participate). They support and warrant their product solution, as well as develop and enable the Fedora project community. They are the most profitable and successful Linux vendor and indeed the most successful open source company to date, finally cracking the US$1B revenue barrier in 2012.
MySQL AB (the company) built and packaged the MySQL database engine. Here, they ran a very different pair of businesses. They evolved the MySQL Network, which was a subscription "product" that again ensured the MySQL database product was supported and warranted to run in specific configurations on specific platforms. As the company completely owned the software asset, they completely controlled its use. Asset owners can license the asset to as many people as many ways and as many times as they choose. (Think Microsoft and the difference between a Windows EULA and an enterprise agreement for the same OS.) This allowed MySQL AB to also evolve a healthy secondary revenue stream from licensing the MySQL database to others that wanted to embed the engine in their proprietary products without attaching the GPLv2 license of the public version. Sun Microsystems acquired MySQL AB for US$1B.
In each case, the FOSS project was licensed under the GPLv2, but asset control and ownership dictated how very different billion-dollar businesses were built rather than the license. This can be seen in other key licenses such as the Apache 2.0 and Eclipse licenses.
IBM doesn’t control or own the Apache projects. (Again, they do participate deeply and therefore have influence.) A number of Apache projects are key components in the IBM proprietary
Stephen is the Technical Director of the Outercurve Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation with the goal of bringing software developers and open source community members together to participate in open source projects.
Stephen has worked in the IT industry since 1980 as both customer and vendor. He was most recently a consultant on software business development and open source strategy. His customers included Microsoft, the Eclipse Foundation, the Linux Foundation. He's an adviser to Ohloh (acquired by SourceForge), Bitrock, Continuent, and eBox.
He organized the agenda, speakers and sponsors for the inaugural Beijing Open Source Software Forum as part of the 2007 Software Innovation Summit in Beijing. Stephen was VP Open Source Development Strategy at Optaros, a business manager at Microsoft on open source, and VP R+D and founder at Softway Systems, a venture-backed company that developed a UNIX portability environment for NT before being acquired by Microsoft. He was a long time participant and officer at the IEEE and ISO POSIX standards groups, representing both USENIX and EurOpen (E.U.U.G.) and a regular speaker and writer on open systems standards since 1991.
His personal blog: Once More unto the Breach.
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