Frequently Asked Questions

by OSS Watch on 12 December 2006 , last updated


About OSS Watch

Who is OSS Watch?

OSS Watch is a team of experts in free and open source software providing an independent, non-advocacy advisory service based at the University of Oxford.

We help institutions, projects and communities with use and development of free and open source software. We provide a variety of services including:

When was OSS Watch created and why?

In 2003 when OSS Watch started there was very little understanding in the UK academic sector about what open source is and how one would engage with it. OSS Watch was set up to examine the state of play and to make recommendations that would enable the sector to fully benefit from open source software.

Over the years the focus has moved from creating a base level understanding through to detailed legal procurement and engagement advice and support. More recently we have emphasized how open source software can be sustained and how business models can be built to ensure that software developed in HE and FE is available customisable and supported with minimal costs for as long as possible.

In July 2013 Jisc ceased providing core funding for OSS Watch. This has led to a broadening of our focus beyond education, enabling us to provide services to a range of institutions, foundations and communities.

How can I be sure that OSS Watch’s documents are up to date?

All of the documents published on the OSS Watch website are subject to a rigorous review process conducted by members of the OSS Watch team. This begins six months after the document is first published when itis reviewed for integrity. After 12 months and thereafter on a six-monthly basis it will be reviewed for integrity and relevance and edited or rewritten to bring it up to date or archived. In spite of our thoroughness we are not infallible and always welcome feedback that will help us keep up to date.

Our document inception and review processes are described in greater detail in The life of an OSS Watch document.

How can I stay up to date with OSS Watch’s activities?

We regularly blog (also available as RSS feed) about everything we do. When we publish a new article on the site we will tweet about it. We have RSS feeds for interesting news and events we come across. And every month we publish a newsletter that contains the highlights of our content. The newsletter amongst other things will be announced on our mailing list.

Yes, we host events on a range of topics related to free and open source software. We currently run a series of workshops under the name Open Source Junction, where we seek to foster collaboration and build partnerships between sectors. To keep up-to-date about events we are running, follow our blog or twitter.

Would you speak at our event?

Almost certainly yes. We are always keen to talk to people about the issues surrounding free and open source software and will do our best to schedule in any speaking requests. We speak mainly at UK events but regularly travel across the EU and have attended events in the US in the past.

We are writing a project proposal for a funding call, can we approach you for advice before knowing the outcome of the bid?

Yes it is actually better to contact us as early as writing the project proposal. This way we can help you address key software development issues often ignored by projects such as licensing community governance sustainability and budget for them accordingly. Advice for project bids provides an overview of how we can help in this respect.

Can OSS Watch advise me on matters relating to open standards?

Open standards can certainly help to improve interoperability but OSS Watch does not track standards development and adoption. We therefore suggest that you get in touch with CETIS (Centre for Educational Technology and Interoperability Standards) based at the University of Bolton for further information on open standards.

Could you add this call for papers / conference notification to your site?

We’d be delighted to provided it is of interest to our audience and relevant to open source.

Would you publicise my event or news about my project?

Provided your news or event is relevant to open source software and of interest to our audience we would be happy to mention your event on our blog, where it will also appear on our website and Twitter feed. Please contact us with your request.

Do you accept guest blog posts?

We not only accept guest blog posts we welcome them! OSS Watch advises on open source development and this is at the heart of our blog. If you would like to contribute a guest post please point us to a few pieces you wrote recently and let us know what experience in the area of open source you could bring to a blog piece.

Are the articles published by OSS Watch applicable to sectors other than the UK FE and HE sector?

While our origins are in the UK FE and HE sector, many of our materials discuss issues related to open source that are equally applicable to the public sector in general or to the commercial sector. As our service continues to develop beyond the education sector, we will be updating our resources to make them as relevant as possible to the wider public and commercial sectors. Use OSS Watch’s resources within your organisation highlights many examples of how our materials could be of use in other sectors.

About open source

What is Free and Open Source Software?

The term free software is used to refer to software released under a license which complies with the Free Software Definition according to the Free Software Foundation (FSF). This term should not be confused with freeware, which is proprietary software available at no cost.

For OSS Watch open source software is software that has been released under an Open Source Initiative (OSI) certified licence, that is to say one which complies with the OSI’s Open Source Definition. OSS Watch uses this OSI-approved list as a means of avoiding debates over interpretation of the open source definition and which licences do or do not conform to it. By recognising the OSI as the appropriate final authority in this issue much confusion is avoided.

The expression open source has wide application. For the OSI it also refers to the distinctive software development methodology employed by many open source software projects. The OSI home page starts with “Open source is a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process.”

The term free and open source software (FOSS) is used to encompass both the terms above, although for philosophical reasons not all software considered open source software is also considered free software.

What is open development?

Open development is an emerging term used to describe the community led development model found within many succesful free and open source software projects.

This methodology contrasts with many of the principles of software development normally taught in academia. The model focusses on fast iterations of development and distributed self managing teams. Contribution to the project is encouraged from all interested parties while a clear governance model is defined to ensure the project does not descend into chaos.

Open source software strictly speaking may or may not be developed using an open development methodology. The choice of this or any other development methodology is dependent upon a project’s chosen route to sustainability.

What is the best way to give credit to open source developers?

Good open source projects are developed by the community so there are usually no individual ‘rock stars’. One of the best ways to give credit to the community is to draw attention to the project by saying publicly (and on the project mailing list) how useful you found it. You can go one better by engaging with and contributing to it yourself - or best of all by encouraging others to do so.

Do I need internal IT staff to benefit from open source software?

No you do not need internal IT staff. Your reliance on staff is largely the same as it would be for a closed source solution. To customise an open sorce solution you need either internal or contracted staff. In the case of closed source you only have the option of contracted staff for many customisations.

Is the model of open source software development useful for academic research?

In general yes. There are many examples of open source software that has been developed by and for researchers e.g. TexGen. An open development culture can also be very beneficial in a collaborative research environment.

What is open innovation?

Many people confuse innovation with invention but innovation is about more than invention. While invention focuses on the creation of something new without necessarily realising economic benefit innovation is the application of inventions to generate economic benefit. Open innovation recognises that in the modern world no single organisation has a monopoly on invention and promotes the sharing of inventions and/or innovations across organisational boundaries. Find out more about open innovation in our briefing document Open source and open innovation.

Can I distribute my open source application via an app store?

This depends mainly on the licence of your application and the developer agreement that the specific app store has put in place. In general more permissive licences like BSD and Apache are less problematic. For more information read our briefing note on app stores and feel free to contact us if you have more questions afterwards.

To what extent is open source software used in the HE and FE sector?

OSS Watch have been researching the use of and policy around open source software in the HE/FE sector every two years since its inception in 2003. Over the years we have seen an ever-increasing use of open source software. The latest survey was held in 2010 and shows that more advice is needed to help the sector evaluate open source projects. OSS Watch’s Software Sustainability Maturity Model can help achieving this.

Open source and the law

Which open source licence should we use?

Many projects don’t start a new software product but instead add to or improve an existing software product in such cases the most sensible licensing choice is probably to use the same licence indeed in some cases you have no choice.

Many projects are part of (or plan to be a part of) a larger community of projects such as the Apache Software Foundation Free Software Foundation Debian or Ubuntu. Many of these limit the licensing choice available. Get to know the community you wish to integrate your project into and understand how your licence choice will affect your engagement with that community.

Some projects may have commercial partners who wish to commercially exploit the software outputs of the project. If this is the case a licence which allows the chosen commercial exploitation model should be chosen since most licences have a direct impact on the suitability of different exploitation routes.

If there is no clear choice for your project licences you may choose to license your code under multiple licences a practice called dual licensing. Projects such as the Mozilla Project use dual licensing to resolve licensing tensions.

We are developing some software and would like to make it open source - which licence should we use?

There are over 70 OSI-approved licences although only a handful of these are commonly used. Your decision should be based upon whether you wish to allow others to re-use your code in projects that are not open source themselves or whether you wish that your code can only be used in other projects that are in themselves open source.

If you are re-using code developed by someone else then you will need to be careful that you use a licence compatible with that code. Some licences come with patent clauses or require that modifications to source code are fed back to the initial developers. Please see our Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Licensing and Patents section to learn more about individual licences. Do get in touch with us if you’d like to discuss your choice further.

A piece of software at our institution is released under the GPLv3 licence. Can I still create other useful and valuable licenses?

For some more background on releasing code under an open source licence we have written a general introduction on the topic. Specifically the GPLv3 licence mandates that anyone who modifies the software and wishes to distribute their modified version needs to do so under the same copyleft licence. This is intended to ensure that the code is not taken away from the community and that all improvements are available to all.

Commercial vendors wishing to use the software that has been released often would not want to be bound by such a licence because they don’t want to make their product open source. A solution to this is to use dual-licensing for the code. In short this means that you can sell licences to companies that do not want to be bound by the licensing conditions of the freely available version.

I have an intellectual property (IP) clause in my employment contract - how can I release my software as open source?

It is likely that your employer will own the copyright in the software you create and that therefore you will need their permission to make it available as free or open source software.

Take a look at our document on contributing code to an open source project for more detailed information on contributing to an existing project. You might also like to read our Introduction to Ownership and Licensing Issues for more detailed information on this topic.

What licence should we use for non-software deliverables?

If the non-software deliverables are bundled or packaged with the software deliverables and unlikely to be usefully reused without them it makes little sense to license them separately.

If however there are non-software deliverables that are likely to be independently reusable or redistributable it may make sense to consider licensing them separately. The Creative Commons licences are probably the most widely used licence for content. OSS Watch has documented the process that led to our use of the Creative Commons (we previously used the GNU Free Documentation License).

Can you advise on how to license software created in an HE institution? Will you include commercial models?

We provide advice on open source licensing of software. It is important to note that open source is not the opposite of commercial it is the opposite of closed source. In addition to open source licensing advice we also provide advice on business models applicable to open source software. If we can be of assistance in understanding these models as they apply to your project please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Can I use an open content licence on my code?

We would advise against it very strongly. Open content licences applied to executable software make no requirement for the corresponding source code to be made available. Open content licences applied to source code do not require any executables built from the source to have their source published. All in all open content licences are poorly adapted to the special circumstances that surround the making and changing of computer software.

Can I restrain commercial reuse of my code using an open source licence?

Not directly no. Point 6 of the Open Source Definition states that a pre-requisite for any licence to be considered open source is that it should make ‘No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor’. Commercial exploitation is a field of endeavour.

Having said this some open source licences make code that they cover less appealing for commercial entities to include in their products. In general licences with some element of ‘copyleft’ such as the GNU GPLv2 or the Mozilla Public License will compel commercial reusers to make some or all of their own code open source. Permissive licences such as the BSD License and the Apache License v2 on the other hand allow the code they cover to be added to a closed source project without compelling any other code to be open source.

Finding open source software

How can I find out if there is an open source application for my specific purposes?

All major hosting providers provide categorisation and searching facilities. For example you can search Google Code which lets the projects themselves define labels to categorise their projects thereby making them better findable. SourceForge uses categorisation that allows you to drill down through the categories based on what type of software you are searching for.

There are also aggregation sites like Ohloh which allows you to search across many different repository websites.

I’ve heard there is a CD with a collection of open source software. Where can we get it from?

You can download or purchase TheOpenDisc from their website. The Ubuntu website also provides details about how to download or purchase CDs of their popular distribution as does the Knoppix website. MacOS X users can download the FreeSMUG Suite CD. Also of potential interest is Portable Apps free and open source software adapted to run directly from USB keys and EduApps which takes a similar approach to open source and freeware for educators learners and assistive technology applications.

How can I determine if it is safe to (re)use a specific open source project?

The most important issue when assessing an open source project is to check if IP and IP provenance has been managed well. Furthermore sustainability of the project is very important regardless of whether you are an end user or intending to reuse the software for your own project. We recently released a document on the Software Sustainability Maturity Model to help you deciding if a project can be reused safely. By applying this model you can evaluate an open source project in terms of three elements of sustainability: openness reusability and capability.

Managing open source projects

Can you help us share an application developed within our department as an open source solution?

We can certainly help you maximise the chances of getting the most from your initial investment in creating the software by managing it as an open source project. In return for your effort of adopting a governance model setting up some basic software development processes and tools and clarifying the project’s IPR framework you maximise the opportunities for contributing to your software in an open development fashion. The key to making your project sustainable in the long term is building a thriving community of users and developers around it by reducing barriers to adoption and encouraging and rewarding all forms of contribution.

What is a governance model and how do I design one?

A governance model is a public document that describes how a project is managed. In particular it describes the structure of the team including individual roles and clearly describes how others may contribute to a project. It also outlines the processes that are followed when performing project activities.

While there is potential for an infinite variety of governance models they tend to fall somewhere on a scale between the two commonly recognised extremes known as the ‘meritocratic’ and the ‘benevolent dictator’ models. The difference between these two models is in fact not so great and mostly concerns the the mechanism for resolving conflict in the decision making process.

Where is the best place to put my open source code?

There are a number of possible routes. It’s all about finding the right community home for your project so your choice will depend on the nature of your project.

Public repositories like SourceForge and Google Code are convenient and highly visible but they are crowded with dead or dying projects.

Private infrastructure is another possible route but this needs to be managed and maintained as does search engine visibility. Some people opt for something like RedMine TRAC or gForge applications that allow you to host a SourceForge-like environment on your own private infrastructure. In our opinion there is little advantage in hosting on your own infrastrcture other than branding and ownership.

Foundations are yet another option. This route provides proven management structures and can add a level of quality and branding not easily generated by other means. See Apache Wookie: a case study in sustainability and Sakai: a case study in sustainability.

What are the best ways of successfully exploiting and sustaining your open source project?

There are many business and sustainability models available to open source projects. They are not mutually exclusive and are most often used in combination depending on the size needs and aims of the project. For a more detailed discussion of the various options see our document Free and open source business and sustainability models.

We are a research project planning to open source our research software. Can you provide advice on writing an open source transition action plan?

We sure can but the reality is that there are too many variables for most projects to address without a proper consultation which we provide free of charge to UK HE and FE institutions.

The starting point is open sourcing your code. However this is only part of the process of managing the software. Just slapping an open source licence on it will not result in an active community. Making your software sustainable in the long term is closely related to choosing a project governance matching an appropriate business model.

How do I customise open source in a maintainable way?

While having access to the source code is one of the key benefits of open source developers can run into difficulties when making changes. This is especially true if the full implications of those changes are not carefully considered. Typically extensive local changes can lead to expensive merging operations when upgrading to a new project release or installing new modules that are incompatible with local customisations.

One way to avoid this expense is to work with the software architecture and restrict changes to a ‘plug-in’. This can be managed as a separate project with few dependencies on the core code. Such plug-in code is less often effected by project changes. An even more effective approach is to work with the project community to adopt the changes into the core project. The changes are then maintained by the project and will be automatically included in the next release. The extra effort involved is often outweighed by the reduced maintenance costs or by the improved reputation of developers and institution as a result making contributions.

What tools do we need to support open development?

In open development projects there are a few indispensable tools: a version control system an issue tracker one or more mailing lists and a website. We have specific documents on how these can be set up using SourceForge or Google code. If you have more specific questions about the use of these tools you can always get in touch with us for more information and/or a consultation where we can address your specific issues.

What is a release management process and why is it important to have one clearly defined?

A release management process defines how software is built packaged and distributed. Having a clear process in place from the outset enables a project team to plan and schedule a release prioritise work and address any legal issues. It also ensures that any testing can be carried out in good time and by as many people as possible and therefore that the release is of sufficient quality to be useful to others. For more information read Release management in open source software projects and Best practice in release management.

How can new developers contribute code to my project?

When new developers want to get involved with your open source software project and donate code to the project they probably won’t have write access to the version control system yet which means they can’t submit the code directly to the project. Instead they can provide the code as a patch. This is a record of changes made to one or more resources that are part of the project’s software code. Someone in the project that does have write access to the code can apply the patch to the source code. In the commit message the person that contributed the code is credited as the original contributor.

Feedback and comments

One of your articles is a bit misleading - what are you going to do about it?

We try to ensure that everything on our website is accurate and non-biased but occasionally information becomes out of date and alas we are not infallible. Please email with any corrections or qualifications.