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Ask Slashdot: Can Closed Source Software Transition To the GPL Successfully? 99

Posted by samzenpus
from the making-a-change dept.
colinneagle writes "Open Source guy Bryan Lunduke has experienced the difficulties of migrating a successful closed source project to an open license first-hand, but still believes — or at least wants to believe — that it can be done. He writes: 'Occasionally, someone makes a go of it, to take a good piece of closed source software and release the source code under a nice, open license. In fact, I did just that about a year ago. I tried to take a software development tool (along with some video games) that I had developed (and was earning a good living from) and migrate them to the GPL with continued development funded via donations. The results were...disastrous. Within a very short period of time of going Open Source, the total funding for the projects fell to less than 20% of what was being brought in via sales when the software was Closed Source, which almost completely impeded the ability to fund continued development. Luckily, I was able to recover and get things back on track, but it was definitely not a fun experience.'" How viable is migrating a closed source project to something open?
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Ask Slashdot: Can Closed Source Software Transition To the GPL Successfully?

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  • OpenOffice (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ShieldW0lf (601553) on Thursday February 07, 2013 @09:08AM (#42819219) Journal

    OpenOffice started as StarOffice. Seems pretty viable.

    • xabber does exactly the same currently if someone wants to view exactly that process while it happens
    • Re:OpenOffice (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 07, 2013 @09:18AM (#42819285)

      If you look at it from an Open Source perspective Open (and Libre) Office are great projects.
      Looking at them from a business perspective, it is hard to make money from OO.o. There is a reason Oracle dumped it at the Apache foundation.

      • by Bert64 (520050)

        It's hard to make money from LibreOffice, because it's competing against a monopoly market leader...
        If the market was more open and competitive it would be much easier, primarily by offering support, training and customisation services around it.

        • Re:OpenOffice (Score:4, Informative)

          by TheLink (130905) on Thursday February 07, 2013 @10:01AM (#42819601) Journal
          It was hard to make money from OpenOffice back then not because it was competing against a monopoly.

          It's because for a very long time Star Office/OpenOffice/etc was crap. It was really crap, and I'm not talking about poor compatibility with MSO, just using its own document formats you still had crappy formatting bugs. Plenty of other terrible bugs- step by step search and replace within selection was broken (it would replace the entire selection!). MSO has/had it share of bugs but they are/were mostly not as bad as that.

          It was so crap that I was telling people to use Kingsoft Office as an MSO alternative instead of OOo.
        • by Darinbob (1142669)

          Who would ever buy support, training, and customization for an office suite? Does this really happen? And if they do buy these services, aren't they normally paying a third party consultant? It just doesn't seem like a viable business model. At the very least you don't want the actual developers who are doing real work to be pulled off doing training or helping customers with integration.

          • by exomondo (1725132)

            Who would ever buy support, training, and customization for an office suite? Does this really happen? And if they do buy these services, aren't they normally paying a third party consultant?

            Im sure large companies would pay for support and training, the assumption is that the best people to go to would be the company/foundation that maintains the product - but who knows whether that's viable (location, cost, time) or the services are even provided by them.
            As for development it's probably the same deal, sure there would be some hobbyist volunteers doing bits and pieces but if it was adopted largely in the corporate world i would imagine the cost of paying 3rd parties to go through the design, d

    • Re:OpenOffice (Score:5, Insightful)

      by jimicus (737525) on Thursday February 07, 2013 @09:38AM (#42819417)

      True, but TFS is actually asking a slightly different question to the headline.

      The full question is "Can a commercial software project continue to bring in enough money to fund itself if it goes open source?". And that is a very good question.

      As regards Star/OpenOffice, Sun bought Star Division. They made StarOffice 5.2 available free (as in beer) but when they opened the source, a **lot** of the code had been licensed from third parties. Sun didn't have the rights to open source that, so they had to subsidise OpenOffice for years while the code that couldn't be opensourced was rewritten. I'd be astonished if they ever covered their costs from it.

      • by godefroi (52421)

        The full question is "Can a commercial software project continue to bring in enough money to fund itself if it goes open source?". And that is a very good question.

        You aren't supposed to bring in money. You are supposed to start wearing sandals (preferably simply the open-toed remains of what used to be sturdy shoes), stop shaving and grow a long beard, hold out a tin cup and ask passersby for consideration, and live a happy, simple life, knowing that you've done good in the world.

        Right?

        • by Anonymous Coward

          You say that as if it were a bad thing. It entirely depends on your goal.

          • I have a goal of owning my own house, since my mom doesn't own hers, and doesn't have a basement. Open source, open toed sandals, and a long beard seem unlikely to move me meaningfully toward this goal.

            Additionally, I have 2 sick brothers - my mom will eventually wind up relying on me. So I pay my own bills or they don't get paid. Dad and 4 grandparents are dead already, leaving nothing. Mom is essentially broke, 2 brothers are both broke and on disability. Some of us have responsibilities and f*ing ar

    • Exactly. Lunduke's stats must be wrong. It's been proven time and time again on Slashdot that free distribution equals free advertising, and leads to even more sales than when it's tightly controlled.

      But seriously, you would expect some shrinkage of donations. There is quite a lot of overlap between libre and gratis.

  • The Wrong Questions (Score:5, Informative)

    by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Thursday February 07, 2013 @09:11AM (#42819237) Journal

    But is there a good, reliable way to fund this sort of transition? To allow a company (however large or small) to stay in business while transitioning to an Open Source license?

    This article is asking the wrong questions. The question should be: what are the appropriate scenarios to move a closed source license to the GPL?

    Because his scenario doesn't sound like one of those cases. If your sole source of income is taking something you've written that you consider a finished product worthy of sales and selling licenses to it then the GPL route for that entire product is most likely not for you. Now, if you can extract a framework from these games/tools that you feel could be improved by the open source community but your specific work (like textures and dialogue for the games or complex/efficient algorithms for the tool) where you feel your worth is demonstrated remains proprietary, then you can open source those frameworks and benefit from community improvements.

    When I write software, it belongs to the person that bought it from me. They are the sole copyright or whatever holders of that code. Only once has a customer open sourced it and several times it's just been shelved even though I've told them that open sourcing it couldn't possibly hurt anything. I don't do a licensing model for my income, I do a "Software as a Service" model. You pay me, you get what I write. I'm like a drug dealer except the first time is still expensive. I know you'll come back for more, everyone always does! Now if ten years down the road you're looking at my code and it's outdated or missing features and I died in that majestic fireworks in space accident then just open source it and see what happens.

    Projects that don't start natively as open source rarely transition well to the GPL in my opinion but when they do, they're not a cash cow based on a licensing model sold as a solitary piece of software. I'm a huge fan of the GPL but you had to have seen that one coming a mile away, right? There are scenarios for open sourcing a closed source project. You've got mouths to feed, this isn't one of them. And once it's GPL'd you better start offering your services to augment that software and go back to working your ass off because I don't know how you're going to get licensing revenue again.

    • by doti (966971) on Thursday February 07, 2013 @09:39AM (#42819425) Homepage

      More importantly, why the hell did he stopped selling the game, and started getting donations instead?
      It could be made GPL and still be sold.

      I don't think the number of people who would copy a version someone compiled from the GPL version and published on a website without donating would be very different from the number of people who would just pirate the game if it was not GPL.

    • by Xylantiel (177496) on Thursday February 07, 2013 @09:51AM (#42819499)

      I do a "Software as a Service" model. You pay me, you get what I write.

      Just to be clear, this is NOT "software as a service". SAAS is where they pay you to use the software (for example through a web interface) but they do not get either the compiled code or source code. You are working as a contract developer. In copyright terms it is a "work for hire."

      I agree that use of GPL completely depends on how the payment-for-work model for a given piece of software works. If one's revenue depends on artificial scarcity, GPL is not really viable as its intention is to remove artificial scarcity.

    • When I write software for other people, I explicitly retain the rights to anything I write, unless the client pays extra.

      As a contractor there's no reason to do work-for-hire. Legally it will not be considered such unless it [a] falls into a protected category, and [b] an agreement is signed saying that the work is "for hire".

      And yes, the reason that I retain rights is so that I can open-source anything I please. We can have a separate discussion about the copyrights, but your words had better be writ large

      • by unixisc (2429386)

        From a demand POV. From a supply POV, question is does writing open source software get supported by the various models that are supposed to fund it - be it advertizing, SaaS or donations? If they don't, then in the long run fewer & fewer people - no matter how dedicated, will want to write software that is needed. The only things one will see will be work of hobbyists, whose day job is something else totally, and who will write certain software that they enjoy, which may or may not be what the marke

        • The business model of selling copies of software is becoming scarce. You're essentially arguing that this is solely due to licensing. I see it more as a market adjustment where we're collectively deciding to treat non-scarce commodities realistically.

          SaaS is the same pig (selling copies) in a different blanket, so you should adjust your rant accordingly. The three pillars of the open source model are selling services, donations, and advertising. You might add a fourth in monetizing big data, but that pretty

          • by unixisc (2429386)

            The business model of selling copies of software is becoming scarce. You're essentially arguing that this is solely due to licensing. I see it more as a market adjustment where we're collectively deciding to treat non-scarce commodities realistically.

            SaaS is the same pig (selling copies) in a different blanket, so you should adjust your rant accordingly. The three pillars of the open source model are selling services, donations, and advertising. You might add a fourth in monetizing big data, but that pretty much tends to go hand in hand with advertising anyway.

            I'd add a 4th pillar - actually, it was one of the first pillars, but is increasingly rare - hardware. Like Intel can afford to promote FOSS, since they're not in the software business at all - software is just an enabler to sell their hardware. But this is an increasingly rarer model, w/ most CPUs either dead (PA-RISC, Alpha, Clipper) or stagnant (SPARC, POWER, MIPS). But if a company did come up w/ a new CPU w/ a killer advantage over both x64 and ARM, this sort of a model would work for them as well.

            • There can be no connection between open source and the end of programming as a profession. The open-source hobbyist programmer is substantially in the minority. As far as can be measured, most open-source development is paid. For large projects this is invariably the case.

              The necessity for the existence of the software vendor, or the necessity to preserve any rights for such, has not been established. You can talk all you want about how good it is for the customer, but you're not optimizing with their profi

              • by unixisc (2429386)

                Also, distributing the source and expecting that people will not copy it is wildly optimistic.

                I'm talking about legally. Illegally, well, people pirate Windows as well, despite all the roadblocks of Microsoft.

    • by Wolfrider (856)

      --Thank you. This guy had obviously good intentions, but bad execution of a good idea. You don't give away the only golden goose you have.

  • Poor wording (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stoolpigeon (454276) * <bittercode@gmail> on Thursday February 07, 2013 @09:12AM (#42819243) Homepage Journal

    I read the question and though, "What? How can it be hard not to succeed? You just switch the license." Then I read the summary and realized the real question was "Can closed source software transition to the gpl profitably?" That is a question I understand a lot better.

    I don't know a clear answer. I do know that donations for that kind of product are not too likely to be a good way to bring in income.

    • by mitzampt (2002856)
      Actually the answer is merit. In order to have profit with an open source project it needs to be reasonably good and damn useful. Also always expect poor donations until enough people get to know your product.

      My projects (and I believe most open source projects) started by scratching an itch. In each case developer's itch... Commercial products usually start by attempting to scratch a known itch for the intended audience. The transition to open source from closed source is successful when the project in q
  • by 91degrees (207121) on Thursday February 07, 2013 @09:12AM (#42819249) Journal
    Surely, if your business model relies on selling copies of your software, then going GPL is not going to work. What was he expecting?
    • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Thursday February 07, 2013 @09:36AM (#42819407) Journal
      This really can't be moderated highly enough. A donation model is nice in theory, but very few people donate. The main reason for open sourcing software is that software is not your core market and you want to lower development costs. Once you open source the code that you are using, even a small number of external contributors counts as a net win. If your business is selling software, then you need some incentive for people to pay you. For proprietary software, it's simple: they can't use it unless they pay. For open source, they can use it and copy it for free, so why would they pay you? Typically, the answer is that they want to be able to influence the direction of future versions, for example by having bugs that affect them or features that they want prioritised.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        On a counter note, I would argue that he is not talking about the transition to GPL. He is talking about the transition to donation ware. These are two different things. He can slap a GPL license on his stuff, and, especially if it needs to be compiled, license as GPL and make the source available. Depending on the price of the software he is selling, many people are just going to buy the binary rather than trying to figure out how to set their environment up to compile it - this isn't Linux where you c

        • by unixisc (2429386)

          This is correct in theory, except that in practice, if he is selling GPLed software, any of his customers can legally take the whole thing, put it on an FTP server and make it available for free to the entire world, and nobody who knows about it would ever buy it from him again. In short, making something GPL destroys his revenue stream due to the copyleft aspect of the license.

          As TheRaven64 described, the only reason for making a closed source project open sourced is to lower development costs, and th

    • by drfuchs (599179) on Thursday February 07, 2013 @11:01AM (#42820109)
      You have to go on tour, and charge for live performances of the bits you created.
    • by TheSpoom (715771)

      He should have done what Blender did and open-sourced only after getting enough donations to make it worth his while.

      Planning your business model in advance is generally preferred over just trying something and seeing what works, at least when you're talking about your livelihood, or all at once as in this case.

  • by gmclapp (2834681) on Thursday February 07, 2013 @09:15AM (#42819267)
    Open source is a nice idea... But if you put yourself in the shoes of the consumer, you're likely to download the source, compile it, and leave the donating to the other end users who you're sure are contributing... Obviously everyone thinks like this, so very few actually donate. As far as viability goes, as long as you don't intend to continue making a living on your work. Go for it.
    • by eksith (2776419)
      This can be remedied somewhat by going with the value added support model. Professional support kept with a subscription can mitigate operating costs, but it would still be a bit of a stretch. Of course, by going purely on the donation route, big, bold, donation notices on the project homepage and anywhere else the code is linked for download will help. And users will want to clearly see how much is remaining to cover operational costs so that big thermometer thingy would fit in.
    • by greg1104 (461138)

      If you put yourself in the shoes of the consumer, you don't end up downloading source. Consumers buy things that are packaged in a way that makes them easy to buy. Given the large chunks of the market are moving toward mobile and tablet consumption, that trend if accelerating if anything. Releasing source code has value to a narrow set of users who are not exactly famous for their spending.

      For games, you can give away source code and sell the packaged product. Providing source does not require giving th

      • by allo (1728082)

        then somebody else will provide free binaries.

        • by greg1104 (461138)

          People are willing to pay a bit for trustworthy binaries from a reputable, believed legitimate source like the known author of the program. I don't run binaries from random sources like torrent sites for a lot of reasons. If there was no legitimate market for things that it's possible to get for free, the ITunes store wouldn't make any money. As I said, the key is to make things easy for people to buy, and right now the market for things like phone apps says anything over a few dollars is too much to exp

          • by jedidiah (1196)

            Most people really don't care where they get their binaries. They just follow the rest of the herd. It doesn't matter if that herd is running MS-DOS or iPhones. People will take whatever is pushed at them. They will balk at ANY thing that costs more.

            Most people are cheap lemmings.They will happily eat dirt because it's what's cheap and they may not even realize they are even eating dirt.

          • by gmclapp (2834681)
            I agree that people are willing to pay for trustworthy, reputable sources. In this particular case, the original author is also offering the free alternative. So I don't see why anyone would pay unless they legitimately wanted to donate to the author for their work. In other cases, I would tend to agree with you.
          • by allo (1728082)

            do you know xchat? the windows version is costly, because maintaining the installer was too much work to do it for free.
            But everyone just uses the inofficial binaries (silverex, the last time i checked).

      • by devent (1627873)

        For games, you can give away source code and sell the packaged product.

        How I wish that would be the norm. For example with Sid Meyers Alpha Centauri. Such a great game. If only they would open up the source you could still play it for the next 50 years. It doesn't have to be the GPL, it could be a Non-Commercial license.

        But the problem is a) they all too afraid that somebody will take the code and create a new game out of it. and b) they want you to buy the next new game instead of playing the good old ones.

      • by Kjella (173770)

        For games, you can give away source code and sell the packaged product. Providing source does not require giving the binaries for free; that's the standard free speech vs. free beer distinction. If it's equally easy to pay for something or not pay for something, people will choose not to pay for it. Duh.

        Except there are whole companies formed around taking all that source and wrapping it up into nice binary packages for you, we call them distributions, most of them are free and 99 times out of 100 people will prefer getting it from the default repositories. And if the companies haven't done it, you can be sure some resourceful individuals have and will put up their own PPA for free. And there's very little you can do about that if you're going to follow the GPL's rules about full corresponding source code

    • by devent (1627873)

      Yeah right. The average user is going to download the source and compile it. Good one :p

  • The HTCondor (formerly known as Condor) distributed computing project has always been free to use, but transitioned from a closed-source to open-source license a few years ago. Development of the software has been continuing unaffected, so far as I can tell. So: yes, it's definitely possible.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 07, 2013 @09:18AM (#42819287)

    I was heavily involved in this on a github project last year. The concept is good, especially if you have enough of the source with clear copyright to put it under a GPL or change license gracefully. But the transition was really painful because all the weird, internal, badly done source control and essentially randomized selection of Perl components came home to roost, and were so embarrassing and so unstable in a more open environment that it was very difficult to get things re-integrated well. Basically, if you don't *tell* anyone you're running Apache 1.3 and storing SSH keys unencrypted on every system you touch, not that many of us will notice besides the crackers until it's far, far, far too late.

    The cleanup was destabilizing and, frankly, cost me my job. But the project is far more secure and on track for safe deployment worldwide now, so I don't feel bad about that.

    • by Bert64 (520050)

      A lot of closed source software is extremely fragile, primarily because it was only ever designed to build in one place so you often end up with something that is an absolute nightmare to build

  • by hweimer (709734) on Thursday February 07, 2013 @09:24AM (#42819331) Homepage

    1. Last May [lunduke.com], this guy announced he would GPL his stuff once he gets $4,000 in monthly donations.
    2. Eight days later [lunduke.com], he received a total of $4,000 in one-time donations and released his code under the GPL.
    3. About a month later [lunduke.com], he discovered that one-time donations and recurring donations are not the same thing.
    4. Apparently until today, he is whining around how bad this all is and that open source is evil.

  • by Big Hairy Ian (1155547) on Thursday February 07, 2013 @09:26AM (#42819343)
    If the project has a strong following or better still a strong following amongst coders then yes it's feasible but not necessarily worth it. Do you anticipate the bulk of your revenue coming from funded development, Support or consulting then maybe if it's from licensing then unlikely.

    HTH

  • by OzPeter (195038) on Thursday February 07, 2013 @09:33AM (#42819387)

    From TFS of all places: " In fact, I did just that about a year ago."

    But then TFS then goes on to say that he almost went broke doing it and we find out that the real (but implied question) is actually "How can I get people to donate to my pet project?"

    • by Bieeanda (961632)
      Oh, that's easy. Take it down for 'improvements', set up a Kickstarter, and promise an assortment of Tux-themed gewgaws bought through Dealextreme in exchange for pledging at a variety of levels.
  • by T.E.D. (34228) on Thursday February 07, 2013 @09:38AM (#42819421)

    I've done it myself (with the original version of OpenToken [stephe-leake.org]). It worked out great for everyone. The community got a great tool, and the company got accellerated development and code excercise out of a tool they were previously using in-house. Everyone was a winner.

    However, that doesn't appear to be what he's asking. It appears that he was defining "success" as donation revenue being higher than proprietary software "toll" revinue, in particular for a game. That's a totally different question, and has almost nothing to do with Open Source licensing. Proprietary "freeware" games face exactly this issue, so the sensible thing to do is look at how they work. I'm not an expert on this model, but I understand they generally have a very low donation rate. So if you want to may it pay better, it would have to be something that will gain way more users as freeware than would have bought it as a traditional "toll booth" model game. Here's an SE question [stackoverflow.com] on this exact subject (warning, the answers aren't encouraging).

    Most folks making money in OpenSource software that I'm aware of do it by selling services associated with the OpenSource software. For instance, that's how Red Hat makes money off of cywgin, and how AdaCore makes money off of the gnu Ada compiler (Gnat). I'm unaware of anybody doing that with OpenSource games. Possibilites in that space that come to mind are taking donations for feature additions (top grossing feature gets coded next!), or hosting ads on the game server.

  • OpenJDK seems pretty successful to me.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Lots of Sun stuff did - OpenOffice and Java being two of the most well known I'd question if is worth it though.

    Moving Java to GPL took about 5 years and used up an insane amount of time and resources at Sun. It is basically why so little of importance has happened to Java the language since 2004.

    So what have we gained?

    1. Free developers? But most of the development work is paid for and done by large commercial companies - Oracle and IBM are by far and away the largest contributors.
    2. Wider developer po

  • on the Linux Action Show [youtube.com]

  • I tried to take a software development tool (along with some video games) that I had developed (and was earning a good living from) and migrate them to the GPL with continued development funded via donations. The results were...disastrous.

    Well what did you think was going to happen? It doesn't take much business acumen to foresee your income going down when you stop selling a product and give it away for free. Did you think donations would exceed your sales? I don't get it.

  • It's easy to take a closed product and go open source with it but there are some caveats, especially for games.

    If it's a game, with single player, then fine, no real problem. If it's predominantly multiplayer that drives user-base / community then you don't want to release it as open source. Security via obscurity blah blah blah, but the fact it once you open up a multiplayer game it gets full of cheaters MUCH faster than the closed version. Unfortunately, it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the w

  • I have seen it go the other way, and it's a much easier transition. Examples include Android and OS X, where the code is only Open Sourced after release, since the license does not require development to occur in the open, it only requires the code be handed over on release, and then only if it's requested, in most cases. Other examples include WINE, which begat Crossover Office, which has proprietary chunks, and MySQL, which has proprietary back ends available, if you want actual transactions instead of

  • *drops mic*

  • I get the feeling that people open source closed projects to get the community to do free work while they continue to receive revenue through donations. If that is the case then your doing it wrong. Also, in the article linked in the summary, the author does not say if he also GPL'd the content along with his game code. The content is where the money is.

    If I had a closed project that was making me money I would not open it until it was no longer a profitable project. At that point I should a) have a new clo

  • That article lacks a lot of important information and also the very first sentence don't make any sense at all.

    Commercial software going Open Source doesn't happen very often.

    Commercial Software and Open Source Software are not orthogonal concepts. There are many Open Source Software that are commercial. For example RedHat Linux, MySQL.

    The first question is what is "success"?
    You can take any software and re-license it under the GPL or BSD (if you have the copyrights). But what is your goal? What are you defining as "success"?
    Do you want more users, more money, more deve

  • by alanw (1822)

    Here are a couple of posts I've made in the past about OpenSTA [opensta.org], an open source "Web load and stress testing tool", which
    was released under the GPL

    http://tech.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=116421&cid=9853594 [slashdot.org]
    http://news.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=155207&cid=13011524 [slashdot.org]

    The web site is still there, but nothing seems to have happened since 2007.

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