Many companies distributing open source software don't know it

The disturbing results of an enterprise survey show that many companies distributing and selling software don't understand OSS licensing.

Too many companies have no idea that they're distributing open source software and therefore violating the GPL, a survey by OpenLogic source software and just not bothering to educate themselves on the copyleft provisions or just not caring about them. The fact that so many businesses are building their enterprise on software they don't fully understand is disturbing.

I found those results to be more disturbing than if they were knowingly distributing

OpenLogic's survey found that more than 65 percent of respondents who believed they were not distributing OSS actually were to customers, partners or others. And though 84 percent of all respondents were using OSS in the workplace, only 22 percent were using some sort of tool to determine whether the software they were distributing contained any of that code.

Overall, 59.8 percent of those responding said they didn't distribute open source software outside of their company, 32.9 percent said they did and 7.3 percent weren't sure.

The software, in many cases, were mobile or web apps. The work done by the companies surveyed ranged from selling software to social media applications (the breakdown adds up to more than 100 percent, because many companies fell into more than one category):

  • Sell software products 26.7%
  • Sell products that have software inside of them 21.3%
  • Give software to customers to use 29.3%
  • Give software to partners to use 22.7%
  • Give software to consultants or outsourcers 9.3%
  • Have external facing web applications 46.7%
  • Provide mobile applications (Android, iPhone, etc) for download 17.3%
  • Provide social media applications (Facebook, etc) 8.0%
  • Offshore or outsource some of your development 24.0%
  • Participate in M&A transactions as either buyer or seller 13.3%
  • Contribute code to open source software projects 28.0%
  • None of the above 18.7%

The majority of the respondents, however, said they were familiar with requirements of GNU licenses for OSS - 68 percent said they were generally familiar and another 24 percent said they were "a little" familiar. Just 8 percent said they weren't familiar with the requirements or had no idea what they even were.

The survey included respondents from 82 companies, about equally divided among small (fewer than 50 employees), medium (50 to 1,000 employees) and large (more than 1,000 employees). While that's not a huge sample size, the results are disconcerting enough to point out a problem. And, it should be noted, OpenLogic's business is based in helping companies properly use OSS in their projects. But I'd wager that many OSS developers aren't shocked by these results.

"Many enterprises are operating in the dark about their open source usage. They often do not have accurate visibility into what open source software they are using and are unaware of situations where they may be distributing open source software," said Kim Weins, senior vice president of marketing at OpenLogic, said in a statement. "As a result, companies are inadvertently placing themselves at risk of violating open source licenses."

The violation of those licenses means that many companies are making money thanks to people who've spent time and energy to develop and improve the software - and not only aren't sharing that good fortune (which, to be fair, wasn't the point) but also aren't contributing back to the code.

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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