I was reading Matt Asay’s blog on how the Apache license has made its first big business win with the Spring/VMWare acquisition. In my experience, I don’t think the OSS license you choose has much bearing on an open source business model. Red Hat/RHEL proved you could build a business and launch an IPO off of GPL-based software. JBoss proved that you could make a lot of money and get acquired for a lot of money off of LGPL-based software. Now Spring, at least, has shown you can get a healthy acquisition of ASL-based software. We now have successful businesses that use the wide spectrum of OSS licenses. GPL->viral, ASL->non-viral, and LGPL->somewhere in between.
I think what this has shown is that brand is the most important factor in creating an open source business. If you have a strong brand, it really doesn’t matter if somebody tries to steal your secrets or even fork your project. Case in point is RHEL. I remember Larry Ellison stating that JBoss and Red Hat weren’t worth the price tag because Oracle could just steal the code. Well, they tried it with OEL and have yet to dent Red Hat’s growth or revenue.
I do think though that license can only be a factor to protect you becoming an Apache or Eclipse fork. Both Apache and Eclipse are strong organizations with strong, instant-brand recognition. If your OSS license is Apache.org or Eclipse.org compatible, there’s nothing stopping a company or individuals from forking your project and setting up shop at one of these organizations. Sure, it is a lot harder to build a business off of a project that is hosted at Apache.org or Eclipse.org because you’ve given a large portion of your brand to these organizations, but a fork like this can do a lot of damanage to your own brand.
Case in point, remember 2003 when a few JBoss developers split with the old JBoss Group company and tried to first fork JBoss, then finally ended up creating the Geronimo project? In retrospect, I think Apache’s LGPL aversion saved us from Geronimo being an outright fork of the entire JBoss codebase. In the end, I think we still would have won out based on both the leadership, company structure, engineering organization, and the brand Marc Fleury built, but I think it would have damaged us a lot more than a few defectors leaving the company.
All and all what OSS license you pick should be a personal choice rather than a business decision. Since Red Hat and JBoss’s brand is uber-strong nowadays I’ve seriously considered licensing projects like RESTEasy under ASL to be Apache.org friendly. Still, on a personal level I’ve always preffered LGPL as its a nice middle-ground between GPL and ASL from an idealistic position…