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Idealog—in the ideas business

Open up

Sometimes the best price to put on your hard work is: nothing

For Wellington software developer Silverstripe, sharing its intellectual property has been a marketing coup. Co-founder and operations director Sigurd Magnusson says releasing the Silverstripe content management system for free in February 2007 has allowed users around the world to get familiar with their software, and led to “several hundred thousands of dollars worth of international sales” for the company.

He says the company chose the BSD open-source licence to be as flexible as possible for licensees. “The more people that use it, the better,” says Magnusson. “It means that more people become invested in it, and can contribute back if they want-but they're not required to.”

While Silverstripe is sharing the IP to its content management product, the company retains ownership of its own internal processes. Magnusson says the open-source parts of the business are incredibly cost-effective marketing tools that bring people into the rest of the business. "We don't lose by giving it away," he says. "We benefit, if anything."

The BSD licence was originally written with software in mind, but Creative Commons licences were designed to cover all sorts of IP. The non-profit organisation that develops Creative Commons licences encourages the expansion of “reasonable, flexible copyright”.

The organisation was founded in 2001 by law professor Lawrence Lessig and others who wanted to create a common space (in legal terms) so creative people could build on or transform the work of others-which is how most real innovation takes place. Creative Commons (or CC) licences come in various flavours that allow or disallow derivative works, commercial use, and derivative works under different licences.

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Silverstripe has built a sizeable business around its free software

CC licences most often apply to creative works, such as audio, video, images, text, educational material and software.The organisation is also working on the Science Commons, opening up theintellectual property involved in scientific research and encouraging collaboration and innovation.

In New Zealand, Te Whainga Aronui TheCouncil for the Humanities is working with Creative Commons to develop CC licences specific to our legislation. It's still a work in progress, and you can participate in that progress. In the meantime, Creative Commons licences are compatible with the intellectual property law of most countries in the world.

While Creative Commons covers a variety of creative works, the GNU General Public Licence (GPL) is the best-known licence designed specifically for software. It was designed for the GNU project, a free software project that eventually gave birth to the free Linux operating system.

GPL is among several licences that champion free software. The website of the Free Software Foundation describes what they mean by ‘free’: “‘Free software’ is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech’, not as in ‘free beer’.”

Essentially, the GPL aims to unleash thepower of many people improving a product, tiny piece by tiny piece. The termsof the licence ensure the innovations that people come up with are shared with the rest of the user community.

Unlike GPL, BSD licences and the MIT licence are permissive licences, which allow users to release derivative works under any kind of licence.

Although it focuses on software, the GPLhas also been used to license documentation and OpenCola, a soft drink with a publicly accessible recipe. Drinkers can improve on the recipe as long as they license their recipe under the same GPL.

For software alone, there are a slew of other licences detailed at Wikipedia. Do these licences relate to other products? This can of OpenCola says they certainly do. Cheers.

Originally published in Idealog #12, page 101

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