On Releasing Your Company's Software as Open Source

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If your company has built useful applications based on an open source framework or using open source tools -- or maybe even if it's merely developed some cool stuff that others might find useful -- at some point the development staff, at least, will contemplate the merits of releasing the software as open source. When's the right time... if ever?

[ See also: Convincing the Boss to Accept FOSS ]

That question has been on the mind of a close friend whose company has been extending the functionality of one open source framework to their niche needs. As active members of the open source community, they've certainly contributed bug fixes and features to the core application. But I'm speaking of the in-house apps they've built on top of it for their own purposes. Some features they've added would be of use only for their organization, but others... hey, maybe someone could use it? They've spent the last few days trying to decide when and if to package up the code and make it available to all; I don't think they've reached a decision yet.

I'm sure some developers would say, "Whatever it is, release it!" in the firm belief that all software ought to be free. But that's not quite realistic, particularly because someone outside the development organization is sure to get involved. While it might take a lot of effort to release corporate-developed software as open source, it does take some effort.

The obvious painful issue is legal. Company lawyers have to okay your bright idea to release the code, and in non-IT-centric organizations plenty of lawyers would require a serious amount of consciousness-raising. You probably already spend too much time in meetings; do you really want to spend a few more hours explaining the different open source licenses to the company's attorney? I'd rather pierce my ear with a railroad spike. Do you want to explain to the lawyer that she probably wants to run some kind of tool to ensure that the company has the legal right to release it—that's the code is already open source, or that it all was developed in-house? (If some part of your code came from an outside contractor, does the company have the right to release it? Answering such questions keep lawyers well-paid.) This does not sound like a fun afternoon to me.

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