The Open Source and Free Software communities spend a lot of time talking about licenses. What the license terms mean, how they combine, which license is best, and many more. To be honest, most of these questions are rather arcane and are mostly interesting to those of us developing the software.
You should always obey the spirit and the letter of the license of any open source code that you use. There are lots of resources about licenses (beyond your legal staff) that can help, and the community will help you, too. But that raises a question of significant interest: why would the community spend their time helping you?
Whether your business produces software, incorporates software into hardware products, runs a web-based service, or simply uses software, your business will most likely incorporate open source software in some fashion. If you want help from the community developing something we’ll call XYZ, then you will want to be friends with that community.
I led into this with a question about licensing and using XYZ in your business, but it can be much more than that. What if you run into a bug? What if you would like a feature added to XYZ? You want to be able to turn to the community for help. What happens if you accidentally violate the license? Will the community castigate you and rake you across the public relations coals, or will they work with you quietly to fix your honest mistake?
I have worked at companies that span the spectrum, and have witnessed the difference. Being a friend to the broader community, or just the developers of XYZ, is a very important facet of your business. It can have a material impact on your financial well-being.
The best thing you can do is to reach out and engage those communities. Let them know you’re using their software, provide a thank you when things go right, and explain and work through problems when things go wrong.
If you have development staff of your own, then have them coordinate private changes with the community, or, even better, release your changes back to the community. The more that you engage a community, then the better friend you will be, and the more help you will receive in your moment of need.
Blog post by Greg Stein.
Greg is a Board Member/Director, Vice Chairman, Vice President Apache Subversion, and former Chairman of The Apache Software Foundation. Widely recognized for his work on versioning systems including Subversion and WebDAV, Greg most recently was engineering manager at Google, where he launched the Google Code hosting program. He's currently focused on licensing, developer tools, and community development.