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How To Navigate GPL Open Source In Small Business

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By Minara El-Rahman on December 16, 2009 9:50 AM

The recent lawsuit filed by the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) over General Public License (GPL) compliance dealt with big names in the electronics industry, but does your small business know how to navigate General Public License GPL Open Source?

At first glance, you may think that this can't possibly apply to your business. But with more products involving on-board software, and more businesses making themselves available to customers online, there's an increasing chance that your business, or perhaps a contractor it uses, might incorporate some GPL Open Source software into the products or services you offer.

First of all, most obligations of the GPL license kick in only when the GPL software is used, then redistributed to others (either in its original form or in a modified version). This can happen if a product's controls were built with GPL covered source code incorporated.

Here are some of the requirements of using GPL Open Source as outlined in Ars Technica and the GNU Official Website:

  • Companies must publish the source code of the individual GPL licensed components and any modifications that the companies have made (copyright notice)
  • Companies must also ship a notice with the product to inform the user of their rights under the GPL and the availability of the source code to the user (statement of copying permission)
  • The copyright notice should include the year in which you finished preparing the release
  • Always use the English word "Copyright"; by international convention, this is used worldwide, even for material in other languages.
  • The statement of copying permission should read (this is directly from the GNU Official Website): This program is free software: you can redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation, either version 3 of the License, or (at your option) any later version. This program is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE.  See the GNU General Public License for more details. You should have received a copy of the GNU General Public License along with this program.  If not, see <http://www.gnu.org/licenses/>.

One important thing to note here is that the only source code that companies need to publish and make available to users are only the components that utilize GPL licensed components. You do not necessarily have to publish all of your source code. This means that small businesses can still have proprietary components that are separate from the individual GPL-licensed components.

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