Open source software licenses for startups

BSD open source license
BSD open source license

Open source software is a wonderful thing.  The open source community has given us a gift pack animal that everyone from individual hackers to the largest companies in the world can ride.  However not all open source software licenses are alike. In particular, some of the most famous open source software comes with legal obligations that can be hazardous for startups.  So if you are doing a startup, resist the temptation to immediately grab your favorite open source software and start hacking.  Instead first take a bit of time to look that gift pack animal in the mouth.

What’s Gnu? Back in the 1980’s, Richard Stallman, who wrote the original and very influential Gnu OS open software license, had a deeply held opinion that in order to create an open software sharing community, it was necessary to “poison the well” for many commercial uses. This underlying hostility towards commercial applications is very evident in “The GNU manifesto”.

These “poison the well for commercial use” Gnu concepts in turn influenced the open source GPL (General Public License), which Linux and MySQL use; along with a number of other popular open source licenses.  Some of these open source license terms can negatively impact your ability to patent your software, as well as your other attempts to make your business profitable.

This problem scares investors.  Sophisticated investors now frequently include open source software questions as part of their routine, pre-funding, due diligence process. So yes, to avoid starving, this stuff matters.

Enter BSD: Not all open source software licenses have these problems. In the 1990’s other software experts decided that an open software sharing community could develop without also poisoning the well for commercial uses.  They developed the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license (initially for their Unix-like operating system). The BSD license encourages sharing, but does not usually limit commercial use or patents.

Although BSD type open source licenses and software are not quite as famous as GPL open source software, a large number of well-respected and highly reliable BSD distributions are available.  Like Linux, there are different flavors of BSD for different applications. Look into FreeBSD for large scale servers, OpenBSD for secure applications, and NetBSD for smaller scale devices.  There are also BSD web servers (e.g. Nginx, httpd, Lighttpd), BSD databases, and many other BSD licensed open source applications.

Use your business model to pick your open source software (license), and not the other way around.  Google’s main revenue is from advertising.  They could afford to base Android on GPL licensed Linux. They have to make Android available for a free download, but given their business model, this isn’t a problem for them.  By contrast Apple has a business model based on selling closed devices.  Apple can’t survive with non-proprietary software. As a result, Apple chose to build iOS and OS X on a BSD foundation.  So pick the license that is best for your business (hint, think permissive or public domain).