Open Season on Open-Source Licenses

Opinion: The OSI risks alienating vendors by pursuing strict open-source licensing requirements.

During the past few weeks, the hottest issue for hand-wringing among pundits on, and would-be participants in, the open-source community has been open-source license proliferation. Computer Associates International has been making statements about the need for a new, modular open-source license, and the Open Source Initiative—the organization that blesses licenses as open source—is talking about tightening its requirements with an eye toward reducing the number of licenses certified.

The concern is that burgeoning masses of conflicting open-source licenses are threatening to hinder the development of free software. Actually, the open-source licensing landscape is less complicated than it may seem. While the OSI has so far certified some 50 licenses, most open code is distributed under few—led by the GPL (General Public License), the license under which the Linux kernel is distributed.

Thats why this controversy is less concerned with the continuing success of the open-source development model than with whether the OSI can maintain its credibility as an arbiter of openness and with the extent to which corporations such as CA and Sun Microsystems can credibly clothe themselves in the mantle of open source while maximizing control of the process.

If the OSI is to maintain its legitimacy, whats more important than simply reducing the number of open-source licenses it certifies (although that certainly wouldnt hurt) is for the group to place a greater emphasis on the reusability of code—the feature without which open source really isnt more than shared source and which will bring the OSI into conflict with some of its corporate supplicants.

For instance, Suns Common Development and Distribution License—the permit under which the company plans to release OpenSolaris—is considered open source by OSI standards, but it is not compatible with GPL. This puts OpenSolaris not in the same space as Linux, but in a parallel universe.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about Suns CDDL.

By pursuing stricter requirements, the OSI is walking a thin line, and it risks having corporations that are unwilling to part with their vanity licenses take their balls and go home, depending on how important the companies deem the OSIs stamp of approval. OSI certification or no, that Sun has chosen to wall itself off from Linux, the unquestioned top dog of the open-source operating system space, casts a shadow over Suns expectations that a vibrant community will grow around OpenSolaris.

In the end, the true certification of Suns CDDL and the code under which its licensed (and the same goes for the licenses and code of other companies that test the free-software waters) will be determined by the community that grows up—or does not—around it. When the CDDL develops a body of code to rival the one that is attached to the GPL, Sun will earn the right to point at the GPL as the incompatible license.

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