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I'm planning to start an MIT licensed project for a Web Server like Apache and Nginx, but primarily targeting the Windows Platform. Those that don't understand open source software are calling me crazy to do such a thing.

A question that comes up is:

What prevents a large company with deep pockets from rebranding my MIT licensed project and killing me off?

Even if by that time, I have an established brand, the large company can 'out market' and 'out brand' me as they have more money to spend.

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    I assume that you don't literally worry that the company would literally murder you. What specific contingencies are you worried about? That your project becomes popular without you receiving recognition as its creator? – Sneftel Dec 1 '20 at 9:53
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    To add weight to Sneftel's comment, there seems to be a contradiction (or maybe a misunderstanding?) in your premise: on the one hand, you've selected an extremely liberal license, that explicitly disclaims all your rights except for recognition of authorship; and on the other hand, you imply that you want some kind of commercial control over the project. It would be helpful to clarify what exactly you are trying to achieve, and why you thought the MIT license was the way to achieve those aims. – IMSoP Dec 1 '20 at 12:04
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    By using the MIT license, you are deliberately giving them permission to do exactly this – user253751 Dec 1 '20 at 12:11
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    Given that the difference between 2 clause BSD and MIT licenses is minimal and that Nginx is released under that license, clearly this hasn't turned out to be a problem in practice (also given that nginx runs just fine under Windows, it'd probably be a better time investment to help improve the nginx experience under windows than starting from scratch, but nothing is stopping you from trying) – Voo Dec 1 '20 at 16:38
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    As with many commercial open source projects your advantage is your most intimate knowledge of the program which enables you to provide the best service, and customizations. Of course nobody keeps IBM from forking their own, getting familiar with it and selling it to big businesses who need more scale and reliability than a small company or freelancer can guarantee. But you are not aiming at that scale anyway, I presume. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Dec 1 '20 at 19:30
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There is not much which would disallow that. The MIT license is pretty liberal and as long as one obeys the requirement to display the copyright notice in the product appropriately, there's not much one could do against that other than offering the better product and/or service.

See also the excellent answer by congusbongus in this similar question as well as the answer by Eric. Marketing/Advertising is not everything, especially in the vicinity of open source.

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Firstly, this is against the spirit of open source; if you don't want people exploiting your work without paying you, don't use open source licenses in the first place.

rebranding

However, you do have one option: you can protect the branding itself by registering the name as a trademark.

"Red Hat" is a trademark. Other people can't call their releases "Red Hat".

The open source components of Red Hat Linux (almost all of which are from third parties anyway) have been released as "Fedora" and "Centos".

MIT licensed project for a Web Server like Apache and Nginx, but primarily targeting the Windows Platform

While there might be some people who want to use it, the commercial market for it is likely to be absolutely tiny and the main deterrent to other companies will be the lack of customers.

(I worked on one of the last third party closed source cross-platform webservers, Zeus, in the early 2000s, and even then it was obvious that Apache were going to dominate except where performance was absolutely critical. The main question you'll face is why to use your webserver rather than IIS - or as is popular these days, a standalone app running node.js or Razor Pages etc)

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    How does registering a trademark prevent rebranding? Rebranding is the other company releasing the software with their own name, not using the original creator's brand. – Barmar Dec 1 '20 at 15:47
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    True, but it then becomes a question of competition between the established brand of the creator and the less-established brand but identical software of the competitor. – pjc50 Dec 1 '20 at 16:20
  • (In "droit moral" jurisdictions you retain the inalienable right to be identified as the author of the software, so it would always have your name on even the bigcorp published version if you insisted) – pjc50 Dec 1 '20 at 16:21
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    Isn't that precisely what the OP is worried about? The big company has more marketing dollars, so they can easily outcompete against the original creator. – Barmar Dec 1 '20 at 16:51
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    I'd rephrase that as "if you don't want big companies exploiting your work without paying you, don't write the software in the first place". Even if you dozen spend years in secrecy write the software for best software idea in the world before selling it as closed source, big evil company can rewrite it from scratch in months, and push you off the market before year is off. The license of the code doesn't matter in the least, it's the idea. And if you think patents will help you there, they wont. – Matija Nalis Dec 1 '20 at 19:56
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Reading "Business Model Generation" by Alexander Osterwalder helped me understand a) how businesses actually work, b) how selling software actually works, and c) how open-source companies (among others) do it.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7723797-business-model-generation

In a nutshell, any company is going to need developers, maintainers, and marketing. In an open-source company, the development and maintenance is partially pushed onto others, and a significant part of the core business becomes about building loyalty, trust, and a following.

Think hard about what your role would be in a successful open-source company - there are several options.

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    It is very naive to believe that development and maintenance is largely pushed onto others. If you don't have great in-house expertise and very active project contributions, you are in a very weak position to offer it. There are a lot of small companies trying to ride that way but it is limited to less diligent customers. Maybe a way to start though. – akostadinov Dec 2 '20 at 9:58
  • "Largely" might be overstating it. Fixed. And there's definitely a need for in-house skills. But the risks and opportunities of people doing some of the heavy lifting for free can't be ignored. – Jason Dec 2 '20 at 12:17
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    It very much depends. If you want to support an existing project, then you would be correct. But if you are developing a new FLOSS project, then you need to wait until it becomes popular, make effort to create contributors, etc. And if you sell it, usually people consider that you should also fund the development. And in case you are doing Open Core, then community can't help much anyway. There are not so many Open Source business modules that are profitable. – akostadinov Dec 2 '20 at 15:06
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    This doesn't appear to actually answer the question that was asked—it's just ruminating about some tangentially related stuff. – doppelgreener Dec 3 '20 at 14:08
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I wrote a book on FreeBSD 20 years ago. And today I make money from Windows Desktop, Windows Server, Ubuntu and FreeBSD.

You have to keep in mind that Windows Server costs money so nobody is going to buy it just to bang around on and have fun with. They buy it because they have an app that lists it as a requirement.

You take for example Clearview software, they have products that require Windows Server + IIS + SQL Server. (SQL Express works fine) However, IIS, as you know is a very poor web server for a lot of reasons.

But, Microsoft supports it like the dickens. If a developer at Clearview runs into a problem they pick up the phone and call Microsoft and Microsoft goes out of their way to fix the problem maybe even doing significant programming work for the Clearview developer. That is why Clearview doesn't support Oracle or Apache on Windows or any of that; just Microsoft products.

Even though you hand out the code for a free Windows web server, since IIS ships at no cost with Windows Server already, it is zero-cost vs zero-cost and the decision will then be made on who provides more support. And that's Microsoft.

There is a huge need for OSS on Windows. But not for products that go head to head against Microsoft products that are zero-cost.

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  • Ted, welcome to OS.SE. I edited your answer slightly because free is an ambiguous term here, and it seemed to me that your answer conflated the two major meanings. But if you don't like the edit, feel free (hah!) to revert it. – MadHatter Dec 3 '20 at 10:28
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    I think if you didn't include the jab at IIS, I would've taken this answer more seriously. – Zimano Dec 3 '20 at 14:46
  • It's not a jab, IIS is deficient compared to apache and other servers. There is not enough space to start in with a comparison but just for starters the whole application pool nonsense in IIS simply doesn't work, despite claims by Microsoft to the contrary it is quite possible for a bug in a worker process to go awry and take the server down and I've got a 2 year old trouble ticket with Clearview still open on one that says you and anyone disagreeing with that is FOB.. – Ted Mittelstaedt Dec 3 '20 at 17:54
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    Thanks, Hatter, "free" is in the eye of the beholder but there are many who's money is more precious than time and the TCO on "free" is better for them. The OP's biggest hurdle isn't technical it's marketing which is what I was trying to convey in a "non-marketingspeak" way. He would need to convince ISV's his code is so much better that they would switch to it and I think that is darn near impossible. It's one of the drawbacks of playing in the windows walled garden. I hope he does execute his idea but on some other product than a web server since windows needs more OSS applications. – Ted Mittelstaedt Dec 3 '20 at 18:03
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Using a liberal license as MIT usually means you assume one of the two things:

  • Your project will stay most popular, because you do most of the work and add nice features and forks will only follow your lead.
  • You do not care about someone forking off. When someone wants to improve your product, why shouldn't they? They do work for you (and other users), so what did you lose from someone else investing work into your project (even when it is rebranded)?

If you want strong guarantees that you will be able to keep up by using their additions in your product as well, you need to use a strong copyleft license like the GPL.

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  • How would the GPL prevent someone doing the things the OPL is worried about? – Philip Kendall Dec 3 '20 at 16:33
  • @PhilipKendall It is a solution to the concern of someone not giving back. Like you created a great base product and they build something cool with it and keep both their additions as well as their improvements to the base product closed source. GPL makes sure that the OP will get the code and has a chance to keep up with their product. Using MIT they may become the main product, when the OP does not catch up with re-implementing their additions. Both assuming that OP would like to have their additions in his project (possibly to keep more relevant than the company's product). – allo Dec 3 '20 at 16:38
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    The proponents of MIT licensing say the same thing about the GPL and and proponents of GPL say the same thing about BSD and the religious license wars go on. And in the meantime companies like Belkin take the OSS code like from the openwrt project, make millions with it, and "give back additions" that are ignored by openwrt because they are of inferior quality. What the OP is also ignoring is it's easier for a deep pocket company to buy his project outright and put him on the payroll in charge of that division which is the usual procedure.... – Ted Mittelstaedt Dec 3 '20 at 18:11

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