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Differences between European and U.S. adoption of open source

People are people, sang Depeche Mode. But people adopt open source in very different ways, as I've seen at Alfresco.

In my role as pseudo general counsel at Alfresco, I wade through a lot of contracts. As part of this, I'm constantly trying to find the right balance between the needs of our customers and partners in different geographies.

Interestingly, our European and North American customers view licensing very, very differently. Generally speaking, our European customers want our software under an open-source license (GPLv2). North Americans? They want the benefits of open source without the obligations and perceived risk (meaning, they prefer a dual-license approach that allows them to contribute back modifications if they wish, but not out of duty).

I've been trying to figure out why the two geographies, surrounded only by the Atlantic Ocean, have such different perspectives on licensing. I believe it comes down to this: governments versus private corporations.

Throughout Europe governments lead the adoption of open-source software, and Alfresco has been widely adopted by governments throughout Europe. In my experience, government IT workers (especially in Europe) tend to buy into the ideals of open source more fully than their private-sector counterparts. They're looking for open platforms upon which the vendor and buyer can collaborate. They trust the GPL and seek out its obligations.

This is somewhat less true of North America, where most open-source adoption is driven by enterprises seeking to lower costs and maximize innovation. In my experience, their developers buy into the ideals of open source but their legal departments generally do not, largely because their understanding of the risks and obligations of open source remain anemic, though it's getting better. So these buyers (or, at least, their legal departments) tend to want contracts that look like the Old World of software. They prefer dual licensing when they can get it as a way to mitigate perceived risks. In other words, they want the benefits of open source without worrying about possible obligations.

Your experience may differ from mine, but I've canvassed opinion on this and have found that others largely share my experience. This means that if you're hoping to do business in Europe and North America, you need to be prepared for the differing approaches to open-source licensing, contracts, indemnification (Europe cares much less about it than the United States does), etc.

And given that open-source businesses are almost of necessity global businesses, you'd be wise to get ready for this difference in views sooner rather than later. Consider yourself warned.