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There are many companies that produce open source software products, and many business models that these companies can use. I'm particularly interested in companies like 280 North, the company behind Objective-J and Cappucino frameworks. My understanding of this organization's business model is that they:

  1. worked to develop a tool which added significant value to developers,
  2. released the tool under an open source license,
  3. built a community around the tool (which was helped by the project's open source licensing),
  4. created interesting demos illustrating the project's value

All of these things added value to the project, and the company that owned it. Finally, 280 North was sold to Motorola.

My question has to do with the role of software licensing in this particular business model. 280 North licensed their software projects under the LGPL, which gave them some proprietary control over how the project could be used. I believe that the LGPL is what's known as a "weak copyleft" license, meaning that the project can be linked to, without the linking code also being licensed under the LGPL; but software derived directly from the project would need to be licensed under the LGPL.

For web-oriented libraries in particular, weak copyleft, or non-copyleft licensing seems to be quite common; I can't think of a single example of a popular or well-known web-oriented library that is licensed under the GPL (or AGPL). The question then, is, how much value would a weak copyleft license like the LGPL add to a software venture like 280 North, versus a non-copyleft license, such as the BSD license or the Apache Software License?

I'd really appreciate any insight anyone can offer into this, but I'd be most interested in answers that can cite other companies as case studies or examples.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by gnat, MichaelT, GlenH7, thorsten müller, Robert Harvey Jan 27 at 23:59

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@Jerry Coffin: I presume you mean "the license matter a lot less than the code" ;) –  Jeff Welling Jun 28 '11 at 7:05
I think this will vary (widely) depending on the sort of software being developed, and I doubt anybody really knows with the correct answer for most types. In the end, the license matters a lot less than the code. –  Jerry Coffin Jun 28 '11 at 7:07
@Jeff: oops. yes. Thank you. –  Jerry Coffin Jun 28 '11 at 7:08

1 Answer 1

For a strong copyleft position look at Sencha - the company behind ExtJS - which uses the (former) Trolltech dual licensing model: Ext is available both as GPL and a commercial license.

More is available here.

Like Trolltech, Sencha has a strict interpretation of the GPL: the whole backend + frontend is a single product, so if you use Ext on your frontend you should release the whole product as a GPL. (I don't have a hard quote on this, so I might be wrong). Trolltech used to argue that if source code wasn't available (like in internal software projects) you needed a commercial license.

I think the biggest problem in the LGPL vs BSD debate on this problem is that if a potential fork from a BSD starts using LGPL for it's own code, the BSD based project cannot benefit from it without "tainting" it's own license.

One could see a parallel from when OpenBSD driver code was used in the Linux kernel. The driver was improved later, but OpenBSD couldn't benefit from it because it was then licensed under the GPL (more here).

Where charging for licensing + consulting (a benefit of the dual licensing path) or charging for consulting from a potentially bigger marketbase is almost impossible thing to answer without getting down to details.

As a side note - as a former startup founder - one thing I'd keep under tight control are the copyright attributions from employees and outside partners. In a acquisition - and that's the most common exit strategy, besides bankruptcy - whoever buys the company might want to go closed source or change the licensing (Nokia went LGPL after it bought Trolltech, for example).

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Good answer, thanks. It's interesting to see how the ExtJS license evolved over time, and the controversy this caused in the community: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ext_JS#License_history –  jbeard4 Jun 28 '11 at 0:20

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