LinuxWorld 2008 Prediction #6: FOSS licenses

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Podcast of LinuxWorld 2008 Prediction #6

Although I’ve previously published the slides for the talk I gave at LinuxWorld 2008 in San Francisco, I thought it might be useful to add some additional comments in the blog about each of the eight predictions I made. This is not the full text of what I said nor a full discussion of the slide, but just some ideas that flesh out what I meant. The full one hour video of the keynote talk is now available at the conference website.

Slide made of prediction at LinuxWorld 2008

Some people have interpreted this slide as being all about ending the proliferation of new open source licenses. I do think we probably have enough licenses to keep us busy for a long time, but I was trying to make other points.

First, even if new licenses arrive, almost everyone will ignore them. That is, the Open Source Initiative might approve new licenses, but it will be the core set of licenses we have now that will dominate the next decade, just as they are doing today. To me, those licenses are:

Feel free to throw in one or two more if it makes you happy or if you think I inadvertently left one out.

According to the list of most widely used FOSS licenses at Black Duck Software, these licenses account for almost 93.5% of all free and open source projects.

All the rest of the free and open source licenses will be fighting over less than 10% of the projects out there. One license not on the list is the Affero flavor of GPL v3 which could strongly come into play if free software gets used more in cloud computing and SaaS. If the license does get widely used, I’m going to cover myself and just say that it is a version of GPL!

So it’s not so much that we won’t see more licenses come on the scene and thus proliferation must be kept in check, it’s more that no one will care. Go ahead, create that vanity open source license, but think twice if you believe you are making the world a better place. Probably you’re just annoying people instead of getting them interested in the software you’ve created.

I should note that it’s not simply how many projects use a given license, it’s the importance of the projects. The Apache License is only #5 on Black Duck’s list with 2.81%, but the IT and general world would be in a very sorry state without the work being done at the Apache Software Foundation. (And yes, people outside the ASF also use the Apache license.

Second, of the licenses that are in wide use by significant projects, I don’t think we’re going to see significant legal changes. There might be some tinkering with them, but I doubt that there will be a GPL v4 in the next 10 years.

Third, as FOSS gets used more and more by big organizations with significant legal infrastructure, there will be a lot of pressure to keep using the existing, well understood licenses. If you made the leap to open source, you probably don’t want to spend a lot of additional attorney dollars (or Euros or Yen or …) figuring out the latest license du jour, as I termed it in the talk.

Indeed, part of a strategy to get open source more widely used in the enterprise could very well be to freeze license changes for the next few years.

Finally, though we might not see more licenses appearing and becoming popular, I do think we’ll be dealing more with how to assemble multiple pieces of software that come under separate licenses. Sample request to your IP attorney: “I want to release a product that uses custom code, LGPL v3 code, Apache code, and Eclipse code. Tell me how to do it.” The formulas for doing this and other combinations will become better understood in the next few years.

Next: LinuxWorld 2008 Prediction #7: Standards

Previous: LinuxWorld 2008 Prediction #5: SMB


4 Comments

  1. Re: “I want to release a product that uses custom code, LGPL v3 code, Apache code, and Eclipse code. Tell me how to do it.”

    One way is to send a team of ‘digital brickies’ to the customer’s site, and assemble the pieces directly on the customer’s computer. IBIBLIO and Debian Alioth — the long tail between them have a large supply of building bricks, but they can take a lot of mortar and skilled labour to assemble them into a solution to the problem you have to hand.

    This gets rather expensive, particularly when you think about a quality control process; and instead of ‘custom build on the client site’ you might well want to ‘prefabricate and test in the factory’.

    So it’s a real problem, and we have it already.

    In a way, it comes to a question of how you balance the desires of the ‘new’ people … those learning Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math at university now, and wanting to form the new businesses (YouTube, anyone ?) … with the putative rights of the ‘old’ people … Microsoft wanting to reap profits from Windows and Office.

    Go Symphony. Go OpenSolaris.

    Competitive ? Yes, certainly. Great for the customer.

  2. There’s another license that could be rather important for EU-countries in particular: the European Union Public License (GPLv2 and Eclipse PL compatible)

    Citing [http://osor.eu/eupl/introduction-to-the-eupl-project#section-1 Why the EUPL]:

    “But why creating a new legal instrument from scratch when more than 100 other F/OSS licences exist, such as the GPL, the BSD or the OSL? The reason is that in a detailed legal study no existing licence was found to correspond to the requirements of the European Commission:
    – The Licence should have equal legal value in many languages;
    – The terminology regarding intellectual property rights had to be conformant with European law requirements ;
    – To be valid in all Member States, limitations of liability or warranty had to be precise, and not formulated ‘to the extend allowed by the law’ as in most licences designed with the legal environment of the United States in mind.”

  3. My understanding is that EUPL is intended to be used when European public money funds the development of the software in question; it’s a kind of ‘return value to the taxpayers’ licence.

    Correspondingly in the US, if public money funds some software development in such a way that ‘the Government owns the software’, it doesn’t have a copyright; it’s in the public domain. SLATEC is like this; go poke around the link to find the details.

    SLATEC dates from 1977, so this version of ‘free software’ is not exactly new.

  4. re “I want to release a product that uses custom code, LGPL v3 code, Apache code, and Eclipse code. Tell me how to do it.”

    Sounds like a “compilation” in “license du jour” speak. This problem was solved a long time ago, think about what Linux Distribution like Ubuntu do.

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