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FOSS License Proliferation Adding Complexity 201

E5Rebel writes "Business is embracing open source like never before, but the effective demise of SCO's claims against Linux doesn't mean an end to licensing problems, an analyst warns. The debate on Slashdot seems to focus on the GPL and its virtues, but there are 1,000-plus open source licenses (according to analyst Saugatuck), and businesses face having to manage multiple licenses within a single open source product. What can be done to minimize multiple-license pain for corporate open source adopters?"
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FOSS License Proliferation Adding Complexity

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  • Strawman (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fishthegeek ( 943099 ) on Friday August 24, 2007 @05:07PM (#20348231) Journal
    Check out Microsofts License-o-rama! [] If Microsoft as a corporation can't stick to even a few licenses what on earth makes anyone think that thousands of FLOSS programmers will share enough commonality among them that they would be willing to use fewer licenses.

    Microsofts licensing site doesn't even address the individual EULA's for products. Each MS product has a license that is nearly always unique to that product. So I say let those that do the work decide on how they would like or not like to share it.
  • The un-problem (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MisterBad ( 40316 ) on Friday August 24, 2007 @05:10PM (#20348277) Homepage
    The vast majority of businesses will never trigger _any_ of the provisions of the licenses for their Open Source software because they will not publicly re-distribute the software in verbatim or modified form.

    For those businesses that do, it is highly unlikely that they'll deal with more than the GPL or BSD licenses. Other licenses are important only for a single package or cluster of packages (e.g. the MPL, the Artistic License, or the Apache license), and companies that deal with these packages tend to be specialists in that area.

    This just really isn't a practical problem for most businesses. It's an issue that software aggregators like distros or SourceForge need to deal with, but not your normal everyday business.

  • by also-rr ( 980579 ) on Friday August 24, 2007 @05:40PM (#20348519) Homepage
    Excellent point... especially when you consider that if you *are* distributing it will pass through your commercial department.

    I have been doing commercial work lately on over 100 contracts, each with unique terms and conditions. Even if we had projects running that used every single OSS license out there it wouldn't tax us to an unreasonable level. That is kind of what specialists are for... businesses pay programmers to programme, and the commercial department to read contracts.

    The best bit is that unlike technical issues your PHB probably appreciates the importance of contracts! I can't think of a single director (even the engineering directors) where I work who couldn't assimilate the GPL in five minutes or less - and the GPL is one of the more complex licenses. They deal with stuff far more weird than this every day.

    All you need is to know how to state the benefits in their language. My humble effort is here [] - and I would welcome additions.
  • by antiNeo2000 ( 981119 ) on Friday August 24, 2007 @05:53PM (#20348605)
    You're oversimplifying things. Some free software is gratis (free of charge), some is libre (free to modify), some is both, some allows commercial distribution, some doesn't, and the list goes on. Since people own the copyright, people are allowed to write their own software licenses, no matter how weird they might be. Some projects need to be commercially viable in order to be accepted as standards (X.Org and the X11 license), while others would rather be shielded from commercial abuse (GNU and friends). Diversity in software licenses, even if it might be a bit confusing, is a lot better than the alternative.
  • Well, yes and no. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jd ( 1658 ) <imipak AT yahoo DOT com> on Friday August 24, 2007 @05:53PM (#20348607) Homepage Journal
    Yes, you're absolutely right that there are only a few "core" licenses that others are derived from. NASA's Open Source license is based on the GPL, for example. However, there ARE a lot of licenses out there. It would be far, far better if there was some sort of inheritance mechanism for licenses. That way, it would be clear what had borrowed what from what, lawyers would be dealing with change sets (which they're familiar with) rather than re-written texts, and instead of a long linear list, we would have a much more compact tree.

    Would this reduce the number of licenses? Initially, no. You'd simply reorganize them into a structure. Would it improve understanding of the licenses? Yes. Understanding would increase exponentially, rather than linearly, as a person worked their way through. Would it eventually lead to a reduction in the number of licenses? Yes. A lot of them have trivial or insignificant change sets and making this obvious to all would create pressure to consolidate where appropriate.

    Ok, but doesn't the sheer number also create pressure? Yes, but it may NOT always be appropriate, and there may be unexpected and undesirable results. Make thing clear FIRST, and THEN make changes, not the other way round.

  • by radarsat1 ( 786772 ) on Friday August 24, 2007 @05:53PM (#20348609) Homepage
    I've had the idea for a while that it would be cool to design some kind of formal language to describe licenses, so that you could apply logical rules to cancel out conflicting requirements and determine whether licenses are compatible with each other.

    Sure, legalese is pretty "formal", but it's not computer-science *formal*. How cool would that be to encode laws and legal conditions such that they are provably effective?

    Someone must have done something like this...

    (That said, I've never really understood why people choose licenses other than BSD or GPL, since these seem to express some basic viewpoints on how F/OSS should work, but I guess people have their own reasons, which is fine with me actually.)
  • a lawyer's view (Score:3, Interesting)

    by faceword ( 635817 ) on Friday August 24, 2007 @05:53PM (#20348611) Homepage
    I represented an company that had developed a closed source software product that had incorporated several open source (but not GPL'ed) libraries, each released under a different license.

    There was a transaction cost, in that the company had to pay my law firm to review each license to be sure the distribution of the product did not violate the license. Some of the licenses had attribution requirements, including one which required the verbatim reproduction of the open source license within the distribution. I advised my client as such, and they included that license within a readme file, complete with the glaring typos that were in the original.

    The cost of a junior lawyer spending a few hours reviewing six different licenses (approx $300 per hour) was lower than recreating the code from scratch -- so it is hard to argue that the proliferation of licenses is problematic. My client was still better off than if it had to spend an extra week of development time authoring the libraries.

  • Re:Can you say FUD? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by LiquidFire_HK ( 952632 ) on Friday August 24, 2007 @06:27PM (#20348907)
    I wrote a quick script to find the most-used licenses (this is from Gentoo's packages, which is a fairly representative sample, with nearly 12 000 packages).

    $ eix -v | grep License | awk '{print $2}' | perl -e 'while(<>){ chomp; $licenses{$_}=0 unless $licenses{$_}; $licenses{$_}++ } for (sort {$licenses{$b} <=> $licenses{$a}} keys %licenses) { print "$_ $licenses{$_}\n" }' | head
    GPL-2 6710
    BSD 711
    as-is 579
    LGPL-2.1 511
    || 428
    Artistic 344
    MIT 259
    LGPL-2 229
    public-domain 138
    PHP 124
    You can see the full list here []. As you can see, a huge amount of the packages (85%+) use GPL or one of the other very popular licenses. "||" means multi-licensed, and most of those are Artistic/GPL. You'll notice that after the top 30 licenses, none are used in more than 10 packages. Of the 863 licenses, 729 are used in 5 or less packages, and 629 of them are used in only one package. Many of the one-ofs are fonts or closed-source licenses.

    So while I agree there are many licenses, the vast majority of projects use one of the popular licenses.
  • Re:Just use the GPL (Score:4, Interesting)

    by einhverfr ( 238914 ) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {srevart.sirhc}> on Friday August 24, 2007 @07:14PM (#20349241) Homepage Journal
    So? Look for opportunities to drive up the asshat's costs. You offer it for free, he charges, so he must be adding value. If he is not, then let him have the suckers......

    If he is adding value, then you still have some options. The first is to look for features he includes and reimplement them in your project free. THis drops his value to $0. The second is to get the community development rolling fast enough that he is effectively forced to fork and move on or start contributing back so as not to be buried in trying to merge his changes back into the code.

    Most of the large BSDL projects I have been around have a few players who do sell versions with a few new features. Most of the time, the community doesn't *want* those features, such as EnterpriseDB's Oracle compatibility stuff. PostgreSQL, of course, has such a pace of development that none of these companies actually want to maintain any more patches than they have to. Hence they contribute everything possible back.

    In short, you contribute to a GPL program becaue you are required to. YOu contribute to a BSD program to drive the competition's prices up and yours down. They both achieve similar ends. Why care?
  • by watchingeyes ( 1097855 ) on Friday August 24, 2007 @10:16PM (#20350427) Homepage
    See that....that's the point flying 15 feet over your head.

    Pretty much every single open source license allows unlimited usage and copying, even to third parties. I'm not aware of a single one that limits this. I'm also not aware of a single one that places restrictions on copying modified versions internally.

    Unless there's one I'm missing, the only limits any open source license places on a licensee is when they create derivative works, and then distribute said works to third parties.

Adding features does not necessarily increase functionality -- it just makes the manuals thicker.