What do you recommend?

Michael Tiemann tiemann at opensource.org
Thu Mar 5 14:42:15 UTC 2009

On Thu, Mar 5, 2009 at 4:14 AM, Alberto Lepe <dev at alepe.com> wrote:

> Hello everyone, (sorry for my English)
> I work for a small company in Japan.
> My boss asked me to buy a proprietary system and set up it for one of our
> customers.
> I develop in Linux and I use open source software, so I recommend my boss
> to go for an open source alternative and save some money.

Good for you!  That is how many great open source projects get started.

> However I didn't find any OSS that fit our requirements. The closest I
> found requires many modifications and even translation to Japanese, other
> thing is that its lacking of community support and there is almost no
> activity in their forums.
> I was thinking that we (our company) could take that project and perform
> all required modifications.

Again, that is common practice for successful open source projects and
companies.  When I needed a C++ compiler, I adapted the GNU C compiler and
in six months I had a compiler that was enough to start a major C++
project.  Less than two years later I founded Cygnus Support, and that
became the largest and most successful open source company (in terms of
revenue and profits) until Red Hat bought it (Red Hat had more capital
because of a successful IPO).

> So, my questions are:
> 1. Can we sell that system as ours without having licensing problems? I
> personally would like to notify it to the OSS project owner and specify that
> our system was based in that OSS.

Yes.  If you use the GPL you can sell your software (and services) at any
price you choose.  What you cannot do, if you use the GPL, is to forbid your
customers from making copies of your software, sharing your software with
others, or making modifications to your software.

> 2. Because we are planning to perform many modifications (which may loose
> any compatibility with the original code), what it would be better:
>            a) Create our own branch of the system and sell a license that
> will include support?
>            b) Contribute to the OSS project and only sell support in Japan?

I would recommend doing both.  There are some successful open source
projects in Japan.  I would recommend contacting some of them and getting
some advice.

> If we go with b), I'm aware that the product itself will improve and many
> more people will be more interested in it, which can help us to improve our
> popularity.
> However, any other Japanese company (with more resources) could get in, at
> any time, and sell the support taking us out of that bussiness...

That is a common fear, and I had that fear for a moment.  Then I realized
how the GPL protected me from a much larger company.  If LargeCompany
decided to provide their own version and support, the GPL prevents
LargeCompany from forbidding their customers from sharing their changes with
*you*.  Therefore, if LargeCompany adds their effort to your effort, your
own product and your own services become more valuable to customers that
know you best.  And LargeCompany potentially creates more customers who want
specialized services that LargeCompany cannot provide.

Today you can read about Oracle, which copied a clone of Red Hat Enterprise
Linux and began selling it under their own brand with their own support.
When Oracle made the announcement, Red Hat stock was very damaged, and a
number of industry analysts said "well, that's the end of the story for Red
Hat".  Two years later, Red Hat is stronger than ever, and despite pouring
lots of effort and resources into their own product, Oracle has really done
very little actual damage to Red Hat.  There will always be industry
analysts who make predictions that turn out to be wrong, and smaller
companies will always suffer more and work harder than large companies.  But
the returns are worth it!

Here's the latest writing about the Oracle vs. Red Hat story:


And here's Oracle's response:


And here's a comment about Oracle's blog posting:


You can choose which one to believe, but there are many customers who will
tell you that SmallCompany can often provide better support than
LargeCompany, especially when SmallCompany has a real interest in the
business and LargeCompany really only wants to sell proprietary software.

> If we go with a) any other Japanese company would have to start from our
> starting point.
> What do you recommend? Are there any other alternatives?
> Thank you in advance for your advice...
> Alberto.

The OSI recommends that people make their own plans, talk with their own
lawyers, and make the license choice that's best for them.  From personal
experience, I think the GPL offers a fantastic way to create a strong
community and ensure that when LargeCompany decides to join in the effort,
you can still keep your seat at the table.

All the best,

Michael Tiemann
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