Legal experts split over cloud effect on open source

Experts at a recent cloud summit debated the possibility that cloud computing could harm open-source software development
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

Legal experts are divided over whether cloud services could harm open-source software development.

At the Cloud Law Summit in London on Wednesday last week, Andrew Charlesworth, director of the University of Bristol centre for IT and law, said the reasons some businesses choose open-source software — lower cost and lack of vendor lock-in — could be eroded by cloud services.

"Some of the things businesses consider using open source for, they seem less likely to consider," Charlesworth said. "Cost and vendor lock-in will be less important, because businesses will be able to see what's available in the cloud."

Open-source licensing may also be undermined by cloud services, Charlesworth said.

Echoing an argument made by free-software guru Richard Stallman in 2008, Charlesworth suggested companies might not continue to use version 2 of the widely used GNU general public licence, which was designed specifically to cater for traditional software distribution.

GPLv2 stipulates that the source code of any application developed from code under that licence must be made available for reuse, if that application is distributed. However, software-as-a-service does not distribute applications in a traditional sense, instead making them available online.

However, GPLv3, known as 'Affero', which was designed to circumvent GPLv2 networking licensing problems, is rapidly gaining in popularity, said Charlesworth.

"We are seeing a steady uptake of GPLv3," said Charlesworth. "The big question is whether companies will stick with GPLv2."

Mark Taylor, chief executive of open-source company Sirius Corporation, said there was a risk cloud services could end up being concentrated in the hands of a few large providers, which could stifle competition.

"Cloud computing should open markets up to small and micro-businesses, but there is a risk the cloud will end up in the hands of the usual suspects," said Taylor.

Taylor said this risk was prevalent in the UK public sector, where large providers typically dominate the market.

"If the government cloud is primarily implemented, hosted, and supported by an EDS or a Capita, what's the likelihood the benefit will accrue [to small business and citizens]?" said Taylor.

Microsoft, traditionally an opponent of open source, said the demise of the open-source coding philosophy and practice was unlikely. Microsoft's UK head of legal, Dervish Tayyip, said at the Cloud Law Summit that any fallout from cloud computing for open source would be unintentional.

"The idea that somehow cloud computing will make GPLv2 obsolete [is unlikely] — no-one developed the cloud computing model with that in mind," said Tayyip, who added that Microsoft was working with various organisations on open-source projects, including IBM.

Simon Bradshaw, a researcher at Queen Mary University of London, pointed out that people were not reliant on GPLv2 as there were a multiplicity of open-source licences available for developers to publish code.

"Open source uses 70 to 90 different licences," said Bradshaw. "The point is, GPLv2 might want updating, but the cloud doesn't stop open-source development."

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