Open Source Does Not Mean Free
The open source community often calls its software "free," but it is more accurate to say that the licensing and acquisition is free. Setup, installation, and operation of the software is not free, whether companies do it themselves or hire someone to do it. Oracle and Google's trial over Java software licensing, described in an article at CNET, highlights the risk of other costs. Even when there is a large sponsor like Google ready to protect free software interests, competitors can demand huge sums in compensation for perceived violations of copyrights or patents. For software that does not have such a sponsor, the trial suggests that users may be liable for licensing costs down the road.
Large companies such as Google can generate substantial savings by avoiding licensing costs, and they have the resources to do the rest of the work themselves. For smaller businesses, these savings are often offset by higher implementation costs because the software does not have the same degree of support as proprietary software. The Java case only demonstrates an additional risk. Even if the original company that created the application had the best intentions, a competitor can buy them and later challenge the open source aspect. Users not willing to undertake an expensive trial would have to pay unexpected licensing fees or stop using the software.
The first few days of the trial have not helped clarify the dispute. Oracle agrees that some parts of Java don't need a license but maintains that the parts Google used are normally licensed. The trial will decide which parts are involved. According to the CNET article, when the Google lead lawyer asked Oracle CEO Larry Ellison whether Java was a free language, he at first didn't answer. When the judge asked for a "yes" or "no" answer, Ellison answered that he did not know. The issue is evidently complex, but such an answer is not reassuring for users of free software, including Java.
The question is especially pertinent at the moment because suppliers of cloud storage systems have been open sourcing their software. The OpenStack platform is the latest example. Free licensing is less important than interoperability and the ability to change suppliers if necessary. Midsize businesses considering placing data and processing in the cloud don't want to run their own systems, but they don't want to be locked in either. Open source cloud software is attractive for them. In this context, the possibility of future legal entanglement is a real detractor. Businesses may even be forced to consider contingency planning for the eventuality that future licensing costs might be forced on them retroactively. It makes free software unexpectedly costly.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.