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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Office clean-up Part 1 :Open-Source and the GPL

I decided it was really time to clean-up my office the other day. And what happened is I ended up sitting on the floor all day, reading through the piles magazines that have come in over the last few months and just stacked up. Over the next few days I'll talk about a few that caught my eye and got me thinking.

Let's start with one from February's Software Development: Licence Overload, opinion by Warren Keuffel. This is a musing on the current state of the Gnu Public License, which governs a preponderance of open-source software projects. You can find it online here.

But first, let's talk about what open-source means for a minute. I know a lot of people in the in the non-profit community think of Open-Source software as "free", as not requiring a license agreement. Indeed, software released as open-source is usually governed by a strict license agreement limiting, as all software licenses do, how the product may be distributed.

Software that is released without copyright or license is termed Public Domain software. Since it has no license, users are free to redistribute it however they want - without source code, for example - so Public Domain is clearly not Open Source.

By far the most common open source license is the Gnu Public License, (GPL) which currently governs 67% of all free and open source applications. The license grants the license holder four "freedoms" - freedom to study, copy, modify, and redistribute the software.

Free as in "Free Speech", Not "Free Beer"
Importantly, it allows the license holder to redistribute the application or deriviative products at a price - it does not require that the application or related services be provided for free. This is what has permitted such widespread commercial adoption of the open source idea. As leaders in the Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) movement like to remind users, the word is Free as in Free Speech, not Free as in Free Beer.

The Free comes from the fact that the GPL requires that any redistribution must also be provided under the GPL -- whether it is of the original product or derivative works -- and thus also must grant the four freedoms . For this to work, the application must be governed by a copyright - this is what gives the original copyright holder the legal power to dictate how it may be duplicated. This use of the copyright law to encourage copying is refered to in FOSS circles as Copyleft.

The GPL has been critical to the open-source movement - the next most popular open-source license accounts for only 6% of FOSS projects. But Keuffel suggests in this piece that GPL is seriously out-of-date and needs to be rethought. Some of the problems:

(1) the license leave holders and redistributers open to charges of patent infringement.
(2) it is written in a way that makes it unclear how it can apply to newer forms of redistributable work - such as web-services.
(3) many open-source projects are international in effort. But the GPL very much reflects US copyright law.

Two, three many license agreements
Developer sensitivity to issues like this have led to a proliferation in new license agreements by major players such as MIT, SUN Microsystems, and the Mozilla Foundation. Wikipedia has published a list of software licenses that can give you some sense of how the definition of FOSS has fragmented. This "license overload" makes it difficult for organizations to develop policies around the acquisition of FOSS, or for developers to make a decision to release their products as open-source.

Currently a GPL draft for version 3 is under discussion - some 8000 organizations have been involved in it. The success of this revision could have a major impact on the future of free and open-source software.
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