APIcon UK: Open Source Fuels the API Economy

Industry leaders say open source is the backbone of the software infrastructure required to fuel the API economy. At APIcon UK, Simon Phipps, president of the Open Source Initiative, explained why open source licensing will enable the API and Internet of Things economies to grow.

Michael Skok, serial entrepreneur and venture partner at North Bridge, oversees an industry-wide open source survey each year. This year’s edition found a “huge leap in interest” in open source, with growth in levels of interest matching the growth of all the critical components necessary for open source to succeed (i.e., people, applications, services and specialization). In addition, Skok is seeing an increasing uptake of open source software among government, health care and education — verticals that tap into the everyday life of citizens around the globe.

Private businesses are also increasingly making use of open source software in the way they build out their API technology stack. APIcon UK attendee Anton Jefcoate from home delivery food service Just Eat, for example, wrote back in April, “Open source is important to us and reflects how we like to work. It’s collaborative, it’s open, it’s pragmatic — all qualities that are essential if you want to build great software and services.”

In recent interviews with new startups working in the civic tech space, it became clear that the majority used open source software, or created open source tools for others, as part of their overall market-entry strategies.

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Phipps, of the Open Source Initiative and principal for an open source consultancy business, would be unsurprised. “Virtually all cloud computing infrastructure is open source software. Clever DevOps are weaving together open source software in their infrastructure,” he said at the start of his presentation.

Among those surveyed by Skok, 68% of respondents believe open APIs will reinforce and fuel adoption of open source software technologies.

Phipps takes an even stronger view. “The API economy needs open source,” he says.

He points out that the API economy operates in a "meshed society." It is not a linear path from corporation to consumer, but instead a distributed economy in which value can flow in any direction. As a result, one-way licensing cannot be monitored, and consumers and users are no longer controlled by corporations that have a monopoly on how their products are consumed.

In this environment, open source licenses give developers the opportunity to cluster together around areas of interest to create the value they seek.

Phipps points to three types of licenses that enable businesses to make use of open source software, while still protecting their resource investment and market commercial potential.

  • Rights-only resources: “These include clauses that concern attribution, trademark and patents. Many in the API space are using BSD open source licenses.”
  • Project-scope copyleft resources: “These also have provisions to share source code of any derivative of the original work. They are particularly used in Eclipse-driven software systems.”
  • File-scope copyleft resources: “For example, if you use GPLv3 code, you need to provide the full source code if you change anything. Many businesses are very cautious of using this code.”

Phipps pointed out that by using open source licensing, many businesses are also protecting themselves against patent aggressors. Patent trolls may still be a potential problem, but most open source licenses include patent peace clauses that not only prevent competitive attacks from other vendors, but remove the open source rights of anyone who does try to press copyright litigation on other open source users.

Phipps summarizes the power of open source for the API economy:

  • Open source licenses deliver the freedoms we need for commerce.
  • It is not just the passion of hobbyists.
  • It is fundamental to your relationship with other businesses.
  • The IoT & API economy need open source more than ever.
  • Communities of use depend on elimination of permission-seeking.
  • Freely licensing rights is the key enabler of the IoT.
  • Open source licenses are proven, understood and do not need any further research.
  • Modern licenses protect you from patent aggression.
  • Open source gives API consumers the freedom to leave (thus, the confidence to stay).

With recent flare-ups regarding API copyright, the move toward greater use of open source licensing may soothe some of the potential risks and concerns many businesses have in entering the API economy.

Mark Boyd is a ProgrammableWeb writer covering breaking news, API business strategies and models, open data, and smart cities.

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