Just how many open-source licenses do we need? - InformationWeek

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2/18/2005
03:25 PM
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Just how many open-source licenses do we need?

It's a question to which there's no answer … at least not yet. One thing's for sure: there doesn't seem to be any shortage of applications for new licenses. Ironically, the proliferation new open-source licenses, each with different restrictions and guidelines, introduces incompatibilities that could actually put up walls between some really good programs.

It's a question to which there's no answer … at least not yet. One thing's for sure: there doesn't seem to be any shortage of applications for new licenses. Ironically, the proliferation new open-source licenses, each with different restrictions and guidelines, introduces incompatibilities that could actually put up walls between some really good programs."Most people would agree that there are too many licenses," Lawrence Rosen, an attorney with Rosenlaw & Einschlag, said at the Feb. 1 Open Source Development Labs summit. "We care because of incompatibilities between licenses, not necessarily because the number is too high."

To illustrate this point, Rosen provided examples of at least a dozen open-source license applications that came across his desk while he was still general counsel for the Open Source Initiative, a nonprofit group analyzes and certifies open-source licenses.

Many of these applications arise from programmers not being able to find the right combination of terms in any of the OSI's 58 existing licenses. One applicant proposed a new license that was based on the GNU Free Documentation License and the General Public License, with some elements from the Lesser General Public License. Another proposed license resembled the GPL as well as the Affero General Public License.

A more humorous example was for a new license simply because the author couldn't find a license he could understand, said Rosen, who himself has written several licenses, including the Academic Free License and the Jabber Open Source License. One applicant even admitted that, while he had written a license to restrict the use of a biomedical application he'd written, he hadn't taken the time to read all of the existing licenses to see if one of them could meet his needs.

Rosen's presentation raised more questions than it answered, but he managed to illustrate the complexities of software licensing and its potential impact on the future of software innovation. "The process is unwieldy, and programmers are not lawyers," he said. "We have to get rid of the problem."

Incidentally, the GPL is the most popular open-source license by far. According to SourceForge.net, as of January, 40,652 pieces of software available in its open-source repository are GPL licensed. The next-most popular license is the LGPL, which governs more than 6,500 pieces of software found on Sourceforge.net.

Martin Fink, Hewlett-Packard's VP and general manager of Linux and chair of the Open Source Development Lab's intellectual property subcommittee, addressed the license proliferation issue earlier this week during his LinuxWorld keynote address. He called for OSI to stop approving new licenses and wrapped up his address by saying, "The proliferation of licenses is a path toward irrelevance."

Is software license proliferation a problem, or does it serve a purpose? Have you experienced any frustrations either writing or complying with open-source software licenses? What's the solution?

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