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Free Software for business use?

Beginners’ Overview of the GPL Licensing Advantage

This brief article summarizes how GPL licensing and OpenSource software can benefit all of us. Excerpt from the new book Linux For the Rest of Us 2nd Ed., by Mark Rais.


To some, downloading a needed software application from the internet and then using it is as every-day as drinking coffee. Yet, there are many who simply have not yet encountered the realm of free software before.

For those who are new not only to the benefits, but also the concept I try to provide a very brief overview.

There are entire organizations dedicated to the principal that software should be free and accessible. One example is the Free Software Foundation and it’s GNU GPL, a rather long acronym for a very reasonable concept: “General Public License.” Almost all software made originally for Linux and Linux itself operate under this license.

There are two major ways to receive a software license: GPL and Proprietary

The benefits for a small business to operate a General Public License are startling. Your company can save money in initial purchases, in maintenance and upgrades, in over all support costs. You can also gain the benefits of flexibility. I’ll try to explain this below.

Software licenses ensure that even if you paid for software neither you nor your business actually owns it, you only own the right to use it.

Many of the shrink-wrapped pieces of software you buy in a store have strict licensing terms that I name Proprietary Licensing.

For instance, some licenses state that you may not transfer the license to any other party. You buy software, put it on your computer. A year later you’d like to give the software to your colleague since he needs it for business use. You respectfully delete your software from your computer and hand the colleague the software. Some licenses do not allow this transfer and consider it illegal.

Another restriction found on licenses is the “single use license.” You may only physically use the software on one single computer in your business at one time. The obvious ramifications are that you pay a lot more for software even with “bundled licensing.”

Although the license allows for you to make one backup copy to another computer, for instance one laptop and one PC, you may not actually use both at the same time. The license controls the total number of times the software can actually be running by a person. It sounds reasonable because we’ve lived with this concept for so long. But if my assistant happens to be doing work in my office on the desktop and I’m in a conference room and want to show my presentation, I’ve violated the license terms and accordingly could be in serious legal trouble. No small business wants to suffer this.

Although you may have PAID for something in the store it was not the software. What did you actually pay for? The principal behind most software licenses today is that you PAID FOR A LICENSE and that you DID NOT PAY FOR THE SOFTWARE, which remains under the ownership of the company. Why is this point important?

Taken to an extreme this allows a company to call law enforcement, attain a warrant and enter your office to remove “their” software if there is some reasonable belief it is being misused. This occurs more often than you might imagine, including raids on small businesses and even public schools!

If it were simply about protecting overt copyright infringement such as the foolish person who decides he can duplicate and sell thousands of software pieces, this would make reasonable sense. However, in many cases it’s simply not being used for this purpose.

Instead, Proprietary software licenses are being used as an avenue to: charge more money for software, control updates and upgrades to the software, identify software buyers and owners and their locations and their use of the software.

Today you can not install certain software on your business computer without “registering” its use automatically over the internet. Once it is “registered” the continued use of the software is tracked through the internet.

GNU General Public License attempts to address this more and more imposing principal of software use by simply identifying and granting recognition to the software writer while allowing the maximum flexibility to the user.

The software writer gets the benefit of being protected from thieves who would take credit for their hard work, while providing your business a very reasonable premise that says you may use the software without being tracked, controlled in where it is loaded, or restricted in how your employees use the software.

How can this work? People need to make money don’t they? Of course they do, and as a former technology manager I am all for paying people well to write software. Once they have written it, I am also all for crediting them, and in many cases I have gone to extremes to ensure that my engineers received the credit due for their blood and sweat.


"How can this work? People need to make money don’t they?"

However, as many software companies are today discovering, it is unnecessary to tightly restrict the use of popular software to make money. People will buy what works and is useful. Money is made in many facets of GPL licensed software including in the packaging and presentation, in the support of the software, or in hardware that uses the software.

Linux is a perfect example of this premise. I can download Linux for free and install it myself. However, there are a multitude of ways I can also buy Linux to make the process easier. If I don’t have a very fast internet connection, I can purchase the free Linux pre-loaded onto CDs. I don’t need to download and burn them. I can also purchase a number of different “flavors” of Linux, each with their own benefits such as easier to install interfaces. Some flavors are finely tuned specifically for business use. When I need more help I can purchase support for my Linux version. If I have advanced uses for the software, for instance to run a business server, I can hire computer consults.

There’s a lot more I could say to quell the odd argument that people will starve to death if my software license is not strict.

What GPL also offers is a concept we have had around for a long time among decent law abiding citizens. It’s the concept of community.

This concept applies to everyday life just as easily as to software licensing and I’ll provide an example.

If my neighbor broke his rake and came over to ask for help, I could respond in the following ways:

  1. I could give him directions to the nearest hardware store with a long explanation on how sales clerks need to earn a living

  2. I could offer him my own rake with a list of rules how he should use it to avoid breaking it, and then charge for the time he uses it

  3. I could offer him my rake if he promises to give me his rake in the future for a similar period of time

  4. I could lend him my rake

  5. I could lend him my rake and go out to help him

The spectrum of software use is almost as wide.

The majority of proprietary software licenses have terms that land on one extreme end of the spectrum. The GPL tries to move that licensing bar a few notches to the other side.

One great benefit is that an entire community of people around the world are helping to contribute software that is needed. Others help to check that the software is viable and beneficial, and still others test the software.

When I sit down to use Linux or any of the free applications and I run into a problem, I can get help from all over the world. I also sleep better knowing that people who personally care about the code wrote the software running my business server.

Hopefully this gives you a brief glimpse at how free software can address the needs of a business without sacrificing stability, support, or growth.


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