The Costs of Complying with Open Source

The International Herald Tribune has a story by Kevin O'Brien on the costs associated with open source software, "In open source, an unexpected trap".  The future of Open Source Biology will include similar costs.

The article relates several episodes in which companies have included open source code in products without then publishing the resulting code appropriately as dictated by the relevant license.  These infractions have resulted in efforts by coders to push for compliance, and also spawned a new market segment for services that screen for open source code in commercial products.  Palamida, for example, provides code due diligence for a fee.

This is another example of the interesting legal and practical landscapes created by open innovation.  The main message of the O'Brien article for me is that open source continues to be a way for companies to reduce development costs.  And this requires figuring out ways to use open source code effectively, intelligently, and legally.  If code created by the masses is close enough to a solution required by Cisco, Intel, or IBM, it seems the Fortune 500 has no difficulty justifying the use of technology that results from open innovation.  Open source doesn't seem to be killing off traditional companies, as claimed by some large organizations; instead, it's helping the companies that adapt to thrive.  The use of the open source code to reduce costs, and the existence of Palamida, suggest the market is providing the solutions to make open source work.

And if the strategy works for electrons, why not for molecules?  If it works for hardware, why not wetware?  Most relevant to the IHT article, I wonder about verifying compliance with biological versions of open source licenses.  There will obviously be companies spun up to analyze the contents of molecular systems -- genomes, proteomes, in vitro enzymatic cocktails -- just as compliance has become an issue for software companies.

This gets one thinking a bit deeper about the challenges of ensuring compliance.  I suspect open source wetware is like open source hardware, in that compliance probably requires a suite of physical tools that enable one to pick apart the molecular contents of a system unambiguously.  I wrote a few days ago about Intel's Sun's release of the Verilog code for the UltraSPARC T1 chip under and open source license; how are they going to police all the chips out there to make sure some of their code isn't used by a competitor?  Or even in a chip that is used for something else entirely?  If the code for the offending chip isn't published, you would have to subject the chip to all sorts of tests, from running test vectors on the chip to sticking the thing under an electron microscope to directly examine the architecture.

Similarly, looking under the hood of a synthetic biological system to check for open source license compliance will require identifying physical objects and proving their use either is consistent or conflicts with the terms of the license.  Another motivation for better biological test and measurement gear.

If Palamida exists primarily because big corporations don't want to get sued, then I wonder if a biological version -- a service company, say -- can assemble the appropriate tools based on funding from big corporations that want to ensure they are complying with Open Source Biology licenses.  Plus user fees from inventors and developers trying to ensure they get paid?  Interesting.