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The case for licensed open source software

By   |  September 26, 2008

Open source software (OSS) has now become a well recognised and utilised brand. A brand that, if we were to get a broad sweeping perception poll on, would generally stand for free, fair and cost effective. However, despite this growth, the battle between open source and traditional software still rages on whereby the pros and cons for each can be endlessly debated.

The real issue here however, is to recognise the distinction between the general perception that OSS has, and the actual relevance and impact it can bring to a business. The general perception is that OSS should be free and cost effective – it’s only fair! When in fact, in my opinion, the actual relevance and impact that OSS can have on corporate SA far outweighs this limited perception. The benefits of OSS – those of speed to develop; solutions vs. software; standardisation and cost savings have demonstrated real value and have gone a long way to changing this ‘free’ perception.

As such, the same principles need to be applied to the next impending debate – Open Source vs Licensed Open Source (LOS). The ‘free and fair’ perceptions need to be managed correctly and placed in context with the value that LOS provide a business – and need to be debated, examined and discussed – to ensure we reach a similar conclusion to that of the OSS vs. proprietary debate – and I am certain we will do so. Let me elaborate.


We have all established the benefits of OSS, but we need to examine the legal guidelines associated with the use of OSS – especially for companies operating in this, the most transparent age – the twenty first century. LOS essentially means a company will benefit from a clear commercial licence, which provides legal protections that are not available under the General Public License (GPL).

It’s obvious that every business is diverse and has varied operational requirements. For any successful technology implementation, a company (and its selected technology partner) must understand these needs explicitly and co-ordinate technology solutions to meet these requirements – effectively. When examining OSS vs LOS and which would be more relevant to a business, the appropriate steps should be taken to understand the benefits and features of each and then decide if the premium charged for the licensed version will provide better value in return. Let’s put two of the readily deciding factors on the table:

It is important to state upfront that as a rule of thumb, any business operating off an OSS platform requiring sustainable backing support, should examine an LOS option. Companies with strong supporting in-house admin and technology resources need not opt for LOS, as the resources to support and manage are readily available.

Having said this however, as more and more corporate and large enterprise companies rapidly adopt Linux and telephony platforms such as Asterisk, the security of licensing structures will become paramount. The licensing option allows customers to get the best of both worlds – the innovation and creativity of the open source model, with the protection and options available in traditional commercial software.

Additionally, there are various examples where both free OS and LOS is provided by the same vendor. A vendor ‘worth its salt’ should always provide a transparent guide on which solution is best suited to a particular business. What’s important is that licensing and protection associated with it is a focus and is taken as seriously as the platform on which it operates.

LOS naturally has a cost implication, as a LOS service provider will provide the support and resources necessary to ensure a fully fledged backing of all business applications for the company. But is this cost not worthwhile, considering the urgent need to continuously support mission critical applications, in a managed and recorded way? At the end of the day – OSS is free – but what is free is the intellectual property. Is that not fair enough?

The lengthy debate of proprietary vs OS must have taught us something, surely? The uptake and success of OSS must reiterate the need for viable support and direct a positive business case for any further developments to OS – of which LOS is one. One that should be taken into consideration with much enthusiasm, as it is only through improvements and developments such as these that corporate SA will be provided with a more dynamic, viable and successful operating platform. Worth the weigh up – don’t you think?

Rob Lith is a director of Connection Telecom.


10 Responses to “The case for licensed open source software”

  1. Johan
    September 26th, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

    All Open Source Software I use is already licensed in some form or another, and there are many licenses in addition to the GPL (

    Therefor I don’t see any need to distinguish between Open Source Software and “Licensed” Open Source. The author seems to have coined his own term: “LOS”. But, frankly, I’m at a “loss” to understand why. It creates the perception that OSS is unlicensed, and therefor you need “Licensed” Open Source for your business needs.

    Perhaps he is referring to software available under dual licensing: either an Open Source license or a commercial license. In both cases you are still dealing with a license, hence there is no need to refer to “Licensed” versus “Unlicensed” Open Source software.

    Or perhaps he is referring to additional business agreements, such as SLA’s, that cover issues such as support. But you don’t need a different license for that – if you need “sustainable backing support”, just sign a solid business agreement of some sort.

    Open Source licenses are already clear and straightforward – perhaps clearer than most proprietary licenses, which don’t offer you any more legal “protection” other than guaranteeing that you won’t be dragged to court for using a pirated copy. Read a proprietary End User License Agreement and see how little protection is offered to the end user. If your business suffers because of a bug in the proprietary operation system that your purchased a commercial license for – you’re on your own: the company who licensed the software to you ain’t gonna take any responsibility or compensate you in any way.

  2. Riaan
    September 26th, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

    I honestly do not understand the reasoning behind the term “Licensed Open Source”. Open Source Software is governed by a number of licenses, the most popular being the GPL. To re-license it, would effectively make it proprietary, and negate many of the advantages that OSS has.

    If you are trying to make the case for something which is the same as Enterprise / Commercial / Professional Open Source (respectively 466000, 253000 and 121000 results in a google search, compared to 13500 for “Licensed Open Source”) by all means, I agree with you, but please do not use this extremely confusing and unfortunate term. These other terms are reasonably well understood, and widely used. Have a look here

    Enterprise Open Source Software, as embodied by Red Hat and JBoss (disclaimer – I work for the local distributor of these products), does everything that you are describing above. It provides vendor backing by means of a subscriptions, which includes amongst the benefits: access to the technology in binary form, updates, upgrades, indemnification, support, certification.

    The software is still freely downloadable in source code form from the Red Hat FTP server and However you are not using the “Right to Use” which is typical of proprietary, closed-source software (Windows, Oracle, etc).

    And lastly, Open Source Software is NOT a brand. It is a meme, a movement or a development model, even though some that do not understand it, use it as a marketing gimmick, without focusing on the true nature and value of an OSS project which may form the basis of a commercial OSS product. An example of a company that did not get/understand OSS at one stage but seems to have improved quite a bit, is SugarCRM (please note, this article is form 2005):
    SugarCRM have now mostly seen the error of their ways and in 2007 changed to GPLv3 and are now selling subscriptions.

    For those that think OSS should be free (as in beer), they definitely have this as a range of options, by using the upstream community project (Fedora,, or a downstream clone (as CentOS is of Red Hat Enterprise Linux), but they should prepare to put quite a bit of time and effort to integrate, test and support something internally, which a commercial entity (Red Hat) would do for them at a reasonable fee, and free up internal resources to do things that add real value to the company.

    Open Source has started of as a movement to provide free (as in beer and speech) software, but has matured to fulfill many of the usage cases that proprietary used to, but at a much lower cost. The crowd that subscribes to the “mentality of non-payment”, “if it is commercial then it is bad / evil; I can do this better an cheaper on my own” will always exist. Commercial OSS vendors are not trying to convert these anti-commercial types into paying customers, but provide value (and make money out of) commercial customers that want to adopt OSS in a responsible and risk-free fashion, who do not have a problem with paying for software, regardless if it is OSS or proprietary, as long as they receive fair value. Even these commercial customers expect Commecial OSS to be more cost-effective (better known as “cheaper”) or have better cost of ownership than their proprietary equivalents.

  3. Matthew Flaschen
    September 26th, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

    You wrote a 700-word article on why I should use “LOS”, yet neglected to actually explain what LOS is, besides the vague claim that “LOS essentially means a company will benefit from a clear commercial licence, which provides legal protections that are not available under the General Public License (GPL).”

    This would be acceptable if it were already a common term, like, say “free software” or “open source” (without “Licensed” in front of it). But it’s not. “Licensed Open Source” gives 8,460 Google hits, while “Open Source” gives “154,000,000”. Okay, that’s a bit unfair. The latter includes LOS, so it should actually be 153,991,540… Anyway, you definitely have the burden of explaining the term.

    The common sense meaning of Licensed Open Source would open source software that has a license. However, all open source software has licenses, which are helpfully listed at Thus, the adjective Licensed doesn’t really add anything. That leads me to believe that buy Licensed Open Source, you are referring to the historical proprietary licensing process. I.E. I go to Microsoft and license 100 copies of Microsoft Server. However, these “licenses” are really proprietary EULAs, not ordinary copyright licenses.

    You mistakenly argue that this is the only model that is a “clear commercial licence”. However, corporations like Red Hat successfully make billions of dollars from licenses like the GPL, so I think they would find them both clear and commercial. What you are really asking for is not any kind of open source, but proprietary software all over again.

  4. Tim
    September 26th, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

    I don’t think you can say that Red Hat makes money from GPL software, they make money from assurance of support of the software, you wouldn’t spend that much money when another project has almost the same software in a slightly different form.

    I agree that, unfortunately, open source has become a brand (one with more hype than is beneficial).

  5. circlingthesun
    September 26th, 2008 @ 6:27 pm

    LOS? Huh? Sounds like some scheme aimed at giving some ill informed people a good rogering while piggybacking off the OSS “brand”.

  6. Malcolm Simson
    September 26th, 2008 @ 10:58 pm

    Quite frankly, ‘corporate SA’ is not necessarily interested in being provided with ‘a more dynamic, viable and successul operating platform’, and do not necessarily want to understand the niceties of legal argument concerning the pros and cons of licensing agreements, whether they be of a proprietary, open source or rather disingenuously-named ‘licensed open source’ nature.

    The bottom-line is what counts, with those corporates additionally working towards developmental and societal transformation objectives preferring to leverage open source for this purpose, given the ethic similarity.

    However, if the business case bottom-line dictates that a proprietary solution, together with its support (or non-support) is the way to go, then quite clearly, the commercial open source alternative could not have been priced correctly in the first place, legal argument concerning licenses notwithstanding…

  7. jonathan
    September 29th, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

    LOS!? Come on. Besides, all OSS software is already licensed.

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  10. RoDent
    November 30th, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

    Rob has just show his disingenuousness. He clearly has no inkling of open source. Or closed source.

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