OSS users must read fine print

To read this on Canoe

DAVID CANTON, For the London Free Press – October 23 2004

Open source software is becoming a popular option. Open source software (OSS) is software where the source code — or human readable code — is readily available, such as Linux.

Many are under the misconception that one must make public any new source code one creates that is in related to open source software.


Source code is the written instructions human programmers use to write computer programs. Most traditional software is licensed as object code that only computers can understand.

That means the user cannot alter the underlying code. With open source, users are free to build on the work done by others as long as they abide by certain conditions contained in the OSS licence.

All OSS licences are not the same, however.

Typically, OSS users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software without the payment of royalties or obtaining express permission.

OSS generally has the following attributes:

* It provides the freedom to run the program for any purpose.

* It allows for the freedom to study how the program works and adapt it to your needs.

* It provides for the freedom to redistribute copies.

* It allows for the freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so the whole community benefits.

According to the Open Source Initiative (OSI), there are 10 criteria to qualify as OSS. These criteria can be found on the OSI website at www.opensource.org.

A major requirement is royalty-free redistribution (including source code). The other main condition involves modifications and derived works, which are to be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software.

Conversely, the source code for proprietary software, such as the Microsoft Windows operating system, is generally kept secret.

Advantages to OSS include enabling the developer to understand the program at a deeper level and to optimize the efficiency of his or her own program.

Having a common source code pool and the tools provided by the Internet also creates an opportunity for extensive and speedy collaboration on development projects. Cost is yet another advantage as most OSS is free.

Disadvantages include a lower level of support and reduced quality assurance.

There are dozens of different OSS licences, including: the GNU (“GNU’s Not UNIX”) General Public License (GPL), the GNU Lesser (or Library) General Public License (LGPL), the MIT (aka X11) licence, and the BSD licence.

For example, the BSD, the Berkeley Software Distribution licence, does not require users to publish derivative works. The GNU GPL, on the other hand requires the distribution of all derivative works.

It is important for anyone using open source software, especially when using it to build their own products, to read and understand the licence terms.

They may find they must give to the public things they want to keep for themselves.

Understanding the exact obligations before one starts to use the software may affect how one creates works based on that software.

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