Commercialization of Open Source Software, The: Do Property Rights Still Matter?

Intellectual Property and Open Source

Article Snapshot


Ronald J. Mann


Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, Volume 20, No.1, Fall 2006


This paper looks at whether open source software makes intellectual property obsolete.

Policy Relevance

New business models like open source have some limits, and will not replace traditional software development. Property-type protection is still important, especially to small firms.

Main Points

  • Open source software lets users change the code to suit their own needs; open source  code under the General Public License (GPL) must be distributed free.
  • Traditional software code (proprietary software) cannot be redistributed or changed by users because of copyright and patent law. It sold for profit.
  • Some argue that software patents should be eradicated because it is hard for open source software developers to pay license fees.
  • OSS gives competitors an alternative to a dominant firm, and letting companies collaborate on projects.

  • OSS is not a response to “too much” intellectual property (IP). OSS is combined with traditional commerce, and traditional commerce needs IP rights, so OSS does too.
  • OSS will lead to more concentration in software, because firms that distribute it sell services, and service firms must be larger. By contrast, selling traditional software for profit is something a small startup can do easily.

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