East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. Rydyard Kipling said that about human civilization. I wonder what his thoughts would have been on the topic of open vs. closed source software.

We do know of course what Richard Stallman thinks. He thinks of “intellectual property” as a propaganda term, and of any software license more permissive than GPL as equivalent of stealing. Since he’s pretty much the godfather of open source, I guess that’s worth taking into account.

But for the rest of us it usually makes sense to be somewhat pragmatic about IP strategy when it comes to software development. Here are the basic pros and cons:

  • Open source makes for rapid adoption rates, especially when the product in question has developers as its primary audience.
  • Proprietary licenses makes it easier for a commercial entity to capture part of the value it creates by building great software.

To have the best of both worlds, many companies pursue hybrid models. MySQL is the poster child of so called Dual Licensing. That’s when you have a free version of your codebase released under some flavour of open source license and offer the same product under proprietary license.

Why pay if you don’t have to? Because the free version isn’t free as in free beer. The “free” version of MySQL is released under a GPL license that means any product that’s built using it is also forced to ship its source code together with its binary.

That’s why GPL (and AGPL, LGPL, Eclipse and a host of other licenses) are referred to as Copyleft; they all use copyright-law to make sure that nobody can ever make proprietary claims on a fork that contains the slightest trace of the original project (in other words: all “derivative work” needs to have the same level of license. Or to rephrase: once copyleft, always copyleft.)

So it does make sense for a commercial entity to pay for a proprietary software license even though there’s a free version available. They pay for not having to deal with the hassle of adhering to copyleft conditions.

But that’s not the only way to skin a cat of course. Redhat makes its money by selling Linux-related consultancy, just like Automaticc, the company behind WordPress.com, prosper mainly by selling hosted wordpress installations.

Leaving Copyleft-land behind (Linux and WordPress are both distributed under GPL) there are still stranger beasts to behold.

The popular publishing platform Ghost is freely available under MIT license. That’s free as in free beer, rather than free as in free speech. Meaning that anyone is free to fork the codebase and sell it under their own brand without redistributing the source code, just as long as the original copyright notice remains intact.

That’s a pretty darn appealing proposition, so we have to circle back to the question: why would you pay?

In this case it boils down to a matter of convenience. Ghost has made it its mission to attend to the achilles heel of most any open source project, which is shitty UX. They aspire to provide a user experience that equals that of Medium, while still retaining the openness and flexibility of WordPress.

Ghost is also curious from another point of view: it’s a non-profit, spawned in 2013 as a kick-starter campaign. It won’t make anyone rich, it can never be acquired, it can’t IPO.

Which so far seem to be working out rather well. Here’s an interesting post where one of the founding members sums up learnings from the first five years, and here is the current revenue, free for all to see. I guess most “real” startups would be pretty happy with those growth curves.

Now I’m writing this post from a very specific point of view. I’m spending my days working with inventors inside of academia. In most corners of the world, if you’re employed by a university you don’t own the intellectual property you produce.

Sweden is different that way. The concept is called professor’s privilege and means that researchers can do what they want with whatever they create.

Which if you’re in software engineering, usually just means that you publish your code on GitHub under MIT or BSD license and move on to the next research project.

Every once in a while though, it happens that an academic has enough of an entrepreneurial instinct to consider building a startup based on their research.

In theory then, he or she could go down the line of just revealing the bare minimum to back up their papers, and then keeping the good stuff as fully proprietary software.

In reality however, that would be frowned upon. So most people are left with exploring some flavour of open core or dual license business model in order to ensure that the software they build will keep staying freely available for academic use, while still providing some avenues for commercialisation.

So what’s the winning recipe here? I guess the jury is still out, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter!