Shane Coughlan, legal coordinator for the Free Software Foundation Europe
(FSFE), spoke about the advantages of free software from a business
perspective at the recent Embedded
Linux Conference Europe. His talk was not necessarily directed at his
audience—as most were already free software users—but, instead,
at the bosses of his audience, the
management of companies using or considering using free software. His
approach was to use the language that management understands while making a
strong case for the value that free software can bring.
Coughlan noted the obligatory analyst projections, including 4% of
European GDP coming from free software by 2010 as well as 80% of
commercial software projected to contain free software by 2011. These are
eye-opening numbers, so Coughlan went on to explain why those numbers are
Businesses are created to deliver value to their investors; in order to
succeed, they will need to "deliver value now and deliver more value
later and that's how you are going
to run a successful business". A short-term outlook is not going to
deliver real success. Paraphrasing Bill Clinton, he said "it's for
the long term, stupid".
Proprietary software allows businesses to "do some stuff", but
free software allows them to "do more stuff". As
Coughlan describes it, the correct approach is for a business to "do
more and keep doing it"; using free software makes that easier.
"From a business perspective, free software rocks."
The key to free software is not in the cost nor is it in the availability of
source code, he said, as those do not embody the freedoms that are
important. The ability to "use, study, share, and improve",
known as the four freedoms, are what gives free software its edge. They
allow for more
flexibility and growth than other kinds of software, he said.
If free software has so many upsides, what's the
catch? "Free software is powered by licenses", so businesses
need to understand those licenses and, just as importantly, the reasoning
behind those licenses. This is no different than any other license, but a
common problem is that people don't read the licenses or follow the terms.
If they do, there is no problem, though. So, there is a catch, but
"the catch isn't too big".
A business must apply some management science to determine its strategy:
whether to use an existing solution or work on building a new one. If it
decides to build something new, does it foster some kind of community model
or not? These are the kinds of questions that need to be answered as part
of determining a free software strategy.
Communication with people in the community is important as is choosing
licenses that are popular and compatible. There are ways to reduce any
risk associated with free software by using existing best practices. That
means pro-actively resolving issues, not just putting free software into a
product, then "pray, and be upset when someone tells us we were
One of the resources available to help management is the FSFE's Freedom Task Force (FTF) which is
set up to assist everyone in understanding free software licensing. The
FTF does training and consulting for businesses to help with
licensing or other issues. If one is having trouble getting management
on-board, refer them to FTF, "we won't actually lock them up and
brainwash them", Coughlan said.
While companies are resistant to releasing their code, "if you're
doing your marketing right and you're not relying on temporary monopolies,
you can probably release quite a lot" of code without any business
harm. It has been estimated that the body of free software is "worth" $12
billion, so a company can reimplement it, "at an estimated cost of
$12 billion, or you can share your $2-3 million [investment] and use the
code". It's a matter of recognizing the immense benefits that come
with free software.
Coughlan also described a legal network that the FTF is fostering in
Europe, where lawyers and legal experts can discuss issues of importance to
free software, especially across jurisdictional boundaries. That network
can help provide businesses with legal information to help reduce risks.
There is, as
yet, no US equivalent, though some US lawyers are participating with the
European network. "Still, I'm confident that eventually the US will
catch up with us", he said.
He wrapped up with some thoughts on the GPLv3, noting that "adoption
in the first year has been very, very promising". In fact, it has
been adopted faster than he expected. He did note that there are some
problems with license incompatibilities, but that those are probably
unavoidable. The ideal situation would be for every license to be able to
work with every other, but it doesn't work that way, which is a bit of an
inconvenience, but not really a problem at this point.
Coughlan did not really say very much that LWN readers won't have
heard before, but he did put it together in a way that should resonate with
businesspeople. It was also interesting to get a look at what FSFE, and
particularly FTF, are up to. There is a lot of important free software
work, completely separate from development, going on in Europe.
Because I am US-based—hopefully not too US-biased—that
sometimes gets overlooked, so it was very nice to have a chance to hear about
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