Verizon and Open Source Licensing

I just read (perhaps belated) that Verizon is settling a lawsuit with two open source software developers that claimed the telecom giant’s broadband service violated the terms of the widely used open source agreement under which their product was licensed.

Actiontec, which uses an open source program called BusyBox to supply Verizon with wireless routers for its FiOS broadband service, settled with BusyBox developers Erick Anderson and Rob Landley after Anderson and Landley claimed that the usage violated terms of version 2 of the GNU General Public License.

Anderson and Landley said, that among other violations, Verizon didn’t make the source code in the routers’ software available to end users – as required under the GPL.

As I was reading the story, it sparked a debate: Does this lawsuit speak to a large, mostly proprietary-based service provider’s inexperience with open source software or is open source licensing universally not understood?

I think it’s a combination of both. Open source in a commercial environment is a relatively new, though rapidly expanding concept, particularly among old-school giants such as Verizon. Many still aren’t familiar with the nuances of licensing commercial open source software; the dizzying array of licenses (I’ve heard there are upwards of a 100) certainly doesn’t help.

But that’s not to count three strikes against commercial open source either. Measured against the lock-in, proprietary model that has dominated the software industry until recently, open source offers a far superior model that produces higher quality and more flexible software. The purpose of licensing is to simply ensure everybody is playing on the same field.

The bottom line is this: for organizations looking to leverage, or already leveraging open source software in commercial applications, make sure you know what you have, how you’re using it, and how it’s being used. In the end it creates a win/win situation for all parties involved. And as the open source market continues to evolve, so to will the understanding of commonly accepted licensing practices.