Free and open-source software

An introduction to free and open-source software (FOSS) licensing and its impact on commercialisation

There is a popular myth that FOSS licences preclude the ability to commercialise software. FOSS licences do impact the route to commercialisation for software, however, WordPress, VLC Media Player, and Mozilla Firefox demonstrate that FOSS licences need not be a barrier to commercialisation.

What is a FOSS licence?

The principles of FOSS are not intended to preclude commercial activities. Free in this context does not mean without cost, but is relevant to the following freedoms:

  1. Freedom to run software for any purpose.
  2. Freedom to study the software and change it.
  3. Freedom to redistribute the software.
  4. Freedom to distribute your modified versions of the software.

Within this framework FOSS licences come in three main categories:

  • Permissive/Academic: Very open licences that allow all 4 of the freedoms above. Examples include Apache, BSD and MIT licences.
  • Reciprocal/Copyleft: Can be permissive but stipulate that any derivative software must use the same FOSS licence, usually stating that source code should be provided when sharing. An example is the GPL suite of licences.
  • Contextual: This is a hybrid permissive and copyleft licence that depends on the context of use, for example a distinction between whether the software is statically or dynamically linked decides if it is a copyleft or permissive licence, respectively. An example is LGPL v3.

Modifying software under permissive licences does not restrict commercialisation options, but copyleft would undermine the value of licensing as it imposes an obligation to pass on the same terms and recipients of your software are therefore free to share as they see fit. This often makes a Software as a Service (SaaS) or a consultancy business model the only way to commercialise copyleft software as a service is provided to clients with no transfer of software. When using FOSS in a research project it is important to take note of the terms of the licence; if your software has potential commercial applications then a copyleft licence could limit commercialisation options.

If you would like to disuss the impact of FOSS licences on your idea or invention please get in touch.

Alternatively, the following links provide a useful guide when considering your own open source licences:

OSS Watch also provide useful introductions to the commercialisation of open source software as part of their resources page:

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