A Web services/open source conundrum

Christian Gross, a software engineering consultant and author, gave a talk at the recent Linux Enterprise Forum in Boston about how Web services could be viewed as "the killer app" for open source. But in his session, he also outlined a possible future for the dubious use of open source software that may raise a few eyebrows among the free software crowd.

Gross discussed some free software packages that are available to develop and support Web services, such as Apache Axis, and Open SOAP (Simple Object Application Protocol) as alternative technologies to Microsoft's .Net and Sun's Open Network Environment (ONE) Web services platforms.

The talk took an interesting turn when Gross began discussing how businesses and software developers could take advantage of Web services along with a loophole in the GNU Public License (GPL).

The GPL, which governs many open source software products such as Linux, allows the free use, modification and resale of code written under the license, provided that anyone changing the code for a commercial application makes their changes public.

Gross' argues that if companies are selling a Web service, and not actual software, they could then use open-source software to build their products, - i.e., adding their own "special sauce," as he put it - without having to make their development work available to potential competitors. An example he gave was a small accounting firm who takes an open source package, such as MySQL, modifies it for a specific task or application, then sells a Web service over the Internet based the modified code without republishing the changes to the open source community.

While Gross says this may go against the spirit of open source, he says this tactic could also spur the use of Web services among corporate users.

"Will this cause some people to hoard software they've developed using open source? Probably," Gross says. "But I think more likely, a gray-area will be created, where some give back to the [open source] community, and some don't."

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