ZDNet is reporting a German visitor to CeBit trying to notify about a dozen companies that their products which use Linux are in violation of the GPL by not returning the modified source to the community. The protagonist in our story, one Harald Welte, is the author of netfilter/iptables and a one man wrecking crew when it comes to tracking down GPL violators as part of the GPL Violations Project.
This story, I think, is very illustrative of the problem open source has when it comes to defining a profitable business model for your open source solution. There are a lot of companies thinking GPL source is public domain, grabbing it, adding their own valuable IP, then retaining those changes. Any lawyer can tell you GPL’d source is not PD, and while there are some enforcement issues with GPL’d source (for example, there’s no legal way to sell a license for no money, and while that’s a technicality of the law, it’s still an issue to deal with), Welte and the rest of the open source community are well within their rights to demand these vendors turn over current source to their projects.
Now I’ll ask you – let’s say you’ve just used Linux to develop a home router/firewall solution, adding significant IP to make the firewall as bullet-proof and state of the art as possible, maybe incorporating some new inventions you’ve developed. Are you going to be willing to turn that source over to the greater GPL community? Remember, anyone can get the publickly available source, from developer’s to researchers to gifted 15–year old script kiddies who live to wreak havoc and ruin. Can you patent your inventions since they’re based on GPL? What if someone takes your source contributions, tweaks them a little, and starts selling a competing product? How do you enforce your IP rights over that? How do you keep from going out of business?
I like Linux, but then again, I’m a computer hobbyist and have been since junior high school. As an alternate OS, it’s kinda neat to play around with, and there are a few things it has the XP doesn’t yet (for example, a full OS install including office software and development system in about 4 Gb of disk space), but there is no way I’m basing any derivative works from it. As a profitable embedded business model, Linux makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.