#11: Simplified, rationalised licensing

Wednesday, November 8th, 2006

This is one post in a series, describing challenges we need to overcome to make free software ubiquitous on the desktop.

Richard Stallman is the man I admire most in the free software world. Nobody else has so clearly articulated, so beautifully argued for the freedom to change your own software and the freedom to share it. I’m absolutely convinced it is free source, not “open” source, which is at the heart of the innovation that will carry free software to ubiquity. Developers are inspired and motivated to climb in and make Gnome or KDE better *because* they have the right to do so, and they know their work will form part of something big and beautiful.

But my voice is only one of many, and I recognise in this world that there are lots of reasonable, rational positions which are different but still, for some people, appropriate. Thus I think it’s normal that we have the BSD-style licences as well as the GPL family of licences, and it’s also normal that there be a few licences in the mix from companies like Microsoft – witness their “Shared Source” initiative.

The result of those reasonable-but-slightly-different positions has been a plethora of licences, most of which fall into a few broad categories, and a few of which are… thpethial. The diversity of them adds nothing to our cause. If anything it makes it harder to build cohesion in our world, and harder to reap the benefits of both collaboration and competition. There are two major desktop environments in Linux partly *because* of these differences.

So what can be done? Well, I turn for inspiration to the work of the Creative Commons. They’ve seen this problem coming a long way off, and realised that it is better to create a clear “licence space” which covers the various permutations and combinations that will come to exist anyway. Hence we have the various options of the CC licences, which allow organisations to specify their INTENT using a few, high level ideas. And as far as I can see we have neatly sidestepped the potential fragmentation or balkanisation of the open content licence space.

By being willing to represent the whole movement, and not just one square on the board, the Creative Commons has saved us from a very messy death by a thousand paper cuts. It is reasonable for me to dream of whole swathes of compatibly licenced educational content, from hundreds of different owners, being combined to create new works of breathtaking scale.

Here’s the hard edge. The OSI needs to decide if it wants to continue to be a driver of fragmentation, or if it wants to lead towards unification and integration. The FSF, much as I am happy to wave their flag, will always remain aligned with a single-minded set of values, and that’s the right place for them to be. They are not an appropriate forum for talk of the whole movement. OSI, on the other hand, while they have much to earn back in the way of credibility with the free software camp,  might just be able to pull this off.


  1. kNo' says: (permalink)
    November 8th, 2006 at 10:11 am

    You may want to listen to the latest LR episode: http://lugradio.org/episodes/64

    They’re talking about creating a website such as licen[cs]epicker.(com|org) where you may, after answering a few questions decide which license you want. It’s similar to the Creative Commons license picker, which is really simple to use.

    The LR community has reacted quite fast: http://forums.lugradio.org/viewtopic.php?t=2754

  2. Shawn Hansen says: (permalink)
    November 8th, 2006 at 11:04 am

    I agree that Richard Stallman’s view on software freedom is admirable, and a very worthwhile end-goal. There seems to be a need for a “bridge” period however. If we could wave a magic wand and convert everything to the GPL, the software world, would be a much better place. In reality, we’re not there yet. Companies entrenched in the closed-source model are moving slowly towards an open-source approach. It would seem then that we need some sort of a bridging license to get us the rest of the way there. It would be an interim measure to get us to a truly open way of doing things.

    I’m not exactly sure of what could fly as a bridge, but it should be seen as something that would make both sides, the creator and consumer, comfortable about the software release. It would give the company time to get used to a more open way of doing things, give them time to find a compatible business model, and it would give the consumer the comfort of knowing the company is serious about moving towards an open source model.

    I subscribe to something I’ve thought of as the Star Trek philosophy. I remember hearing it on an episode of the The Next Generation at one point in time. Something along the lines of “When all knowledge is free, humanity is free to pursue whatever knowledge interests them, and in so doing, we advance at a much faster pace”, or something to that effect :)

  3. Colin says: (permalink)
    November 8th, 2006 at 1:04 pm

    By being willing to represent the whole movement, and not just one square on the board, the Creative Commons has saved us from a very messy death by a thousand paper cuts.

    The problem I see with the Creative Commons Licences is that it’s a plural. Most people I know just mention “Creative Commons”, completely ignoring the right part of “CC-*”. The various CC licences can make a work completely free, or completely not free, or anything between the two.

  4. Xalior says: (permalink)
    November 8th, 2006 at 2:08 pm

    Listened to LugRadio recently? http://www.lugradio.org/episodes/64 :-)


  5. the_angry_angel says: (permalink)
    November 8th, 2006 at 2:09 pm

    This all sounds vaguely familiar… I just can’t put my finger on it.. Oh wait; http://lugradio.org/episodes/64

    And all this time we thought Canonical was taking over LUGradio. Now we know its actually the other way around!

  6. Lulu says: (permalink)
    November 8th, 2006 at 4:06 pm

    Unfortunately, my voice is just one of a few, and that voice is saying it is about time you also mention Xfce, especially since there’s an Xfce-based Ubuntu derivative.

    Also, there’s this GPL v3, right? One of its intentions is to narrow down the amount of licenses by creating one license that can be expanded as one wishes. Is it me, or does this, while limiting the amount of licenses, expands the amount of GPL versions and thus only adding to the chaos?

  7. Robert Devi says: (permalink)
    November 8th, 2006 at 6:24 pm

    Personally, I think the GPL v3 (if the Tivo clause were made optional) and its license selection reduces the chaos for this simple reason, it lists out your choices in nonconflicting ways.

    Suppose you write GPLv3 code that uses no clauses you want to combine it with GPLv3 code that invokes A and B. You also want to be able to combine it with GPLv3 code that invokes clauses B and C. Could you do it? Yes, but your resulting program would invoke clauses A, B, and C. Basically, the GPLv3 approach is to make clauses additive, so you can combine and GPLv3 license with any GPLv3 license and get a valid GPLv3 license. Now you might not *want* to invoke a particular clause in your source code (e.g. the kernel developers would pass on the Tivo clause if it were made optional), but the GPLv3 makes it easy to see which code you should avoid (e.g. code with the particular clause invoked).

    What would be great would be if the OSI created a general OSI license with tonnes of clauses. If you invoke no clause, you get public domain software, if you invoke clauses A and B, you get BSD license. If you invoke clauses A, B, and C, you get the Apache license. If you invoke clauses A, B, and D you get the LGPL. etc, all the way up to the GPL. Now some licenses have conflicting terms, so it wouldn’t be possible to create a single “open source license”, but it should be possible to reduce the number of open source licenses to perhaps 5 open source license families. Combining code within a license family would give predictable results, but if you tried to combine code between two different families, you’d need to do some investigation because chances are, you wouldn’t be able to.

  8. Ubuntu Documentation licensing policy » Matthew East » Another website without much here says: (permalink)
    November 8th, 2006 at 10:07 pm

    [...] There has been much licensing talk on Planet Ubuntu recently, with Mark and Matthew both posting. Mark waxed lyrical about the work of Creative Commons. [...]

  9. A Fool’s Wisdom » Open Source License Proliferation says: (permalink)
    November 9th, 2006 at 4:52 am

    [...] Mark Shuttleworth wrote an excellent article on Open Source “license proliferation” without once using that term, and though he mentions the Open Source Initiative (OSI) he does not discuss their current work in this area. [...]

  10. Andrea says: (permalink)
    November 9th, 2006 at 8:36 am

    Hello Mark,

    what do you think about the patnership of Novell & Microsoft?

  11. Tobias says: (permalink)
    November 9th, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    Who is OSI? I can’t find it on http://www.opensource.org/.
    And where is their list of “recommended” licenses?
    Basically the website is a mess measured against the importance it should have.

  12. Mark parla di licenze, e stupisce come al solito « Ubuntista says: (permalink)
    November 10th, 2006 at 11:29 am

    [...] Leggo un nuovo post nel blog di Mark Shuttleworth, e come al solito mi stupisco di quanto questo essere umano sia capace di centrare il punto, di dire cose che, almeno a me, appaiono perfettamente giuste. [...]

  13. Danese Cooper says: (permalink)
    November 12th, 2006 at 4:57 am

    Speaking on behalf of OSI, a few comments.

    1. We also have a License Wizard project, which was announced at OSCON and is being developed by Dr. Sameer Verma of San Francisco State University (who was one of the first professors to introduce a full curriculum on Free and Open Source Software). Next draft of the software is scheduled to be posted in December 2006. Dr. Verma is also running a project on SourceForge to host the source code behind the wizard engine, which will be useful for any branched decision-making tree. You can contact Dr. Verma at sverma@sfsu.edu

    2. Our website is indeed a “mess”. Even we think so. Its also hard-coded as heck, and very difficult to maintain. We’ve been working for a couple of months on a migration of content to a new, better organized Drupal-driven site, which we intend to unveil in late November 2006.

    3. Recommendations in re License Proliferation have been published to the License Proliferation Team (and are informing Dr. Verma’s License Wizard as well). They are scheduled for Board consideration as soon as the committee votes to send them to the Board. A lot of people worked a long time on the recommendations, and one of the side benefits is that as a result of that work there have been several “retirements” of corporate vanity licenses which helps to reduce the number of licenses to consider. We’ve also seen a marked drop in the number of new licenses. People seem to be getting the idea that writing new licenses is generally not a good idea. Another part of the OSI’s work on License Proliferation has been participation in an attempt to craft a “common license framework” between Sun, Apple and Mozilla, all of which use an MPL-style license. In short, there’s a lot going on.

  14. Russell Nelson says: (permalink)
    November 12th, 2006 at 6:36 am

    Hi, Mark. We have a license selector wizard on the new website under development (Drupal-based).

    The license proliferation commiteee’s report iis at http://opensource.org/lpc/
    The report’s FAQ (including a linked list of licenses) is at http://opensource.org/lpc/faq.php

    Re your “driver of fragmentation”, what do you think we should do when somebody comes to us with a license that complies with the Open Source Definition? I think we have to approve the license and list it on opensource.org. The alternative is to have people running around saying “Our license is Open Source and complies with the OSD even though OSI doesn’t approve or list it.” If people do that, then we have given up our role as arbiter of what is Open Source and what is not.

  15. Lesley Clayton says: (permalink)
    November 12th, 2006 at 7:54 am

    Creative Commons does offer flexible licensing to suit different needs which is great. It allows authors to have certain rights reserved like protecting their good name, receiving credit for works and the opportunity for business which is totally necessary for every self respecting adult who needs to pay their bills. It also allows users to have access and freedom, a social movement that I absolutely love. However the idea or level of freedom is different for everyone. The word “Ubuntu” to me means giving 100% with no strings attached as far as my heart is concerned with educational materials. If I were to be an author of books and I found that the “some rights reserved” part of the license got in the way of truely making knowlege free and accessible, I would forfeit them. If it meant I dont put my name or branding on a product and instead have a no name brand or a concept of ” in an unmarked brown paper bag” then a collaborative project like that would do it for me. I may not be in the running for the nobel peace prize, but the joy of seeing people empowered, having that moment of learning and delight will be an AWESOME experience!

  16. Jim Thompson says: (permalink)
    November 13th, 2006 at 11:39 pm

    OSI is a mess.

    Mark is right, they’re well-placed to make *the* difference, but I doubt the current “self-selected” board can get the job done.


    They should have pushed Russ Nelson all the way out, rather than allow him to remain after his ‘gaffe’ in Feb 2005. Especially now that he’s repeating it.


    (How can anyone remain on a board after repeating this kind of stunt?)

    The OSI was responsible for “license proliferation” because they let Larry Rosen (a lawyer) run the show. Larry said that all licenses that ‘fit’ the “Open Source Definition” had to be allowed, else the OSI would get sued.

    the OSD was the work of ESR, who … unfortunately is not a lawyer, and likely didn’t forsee the result. Still, since “open source” is a marketing campaign, *designed from the outset* to defeat Free Software, I hope that Mark will take his ideas to an organization other than the OSI.

    Perhaps we need a repalcement for the OSI, alligned with the Creative Commons folk. Invite Lessig and the EFF and perhaps 2-3 other parties. Make a new CC-style license for software.

  17. symbolic meditation says: (permalink)
    November 15th, 2006 at 9:20 pm

    Dear Mark:
    I perceive the CC licenses have somewhat Balkanized inside that “license space” you mention and have lost somehow its initial drive. I think we must foster the most freedom-guaranteeing licence we can get, and in this sense he GPL has done and I hope will continue to do the job very well. There is no denying that BSD licenses are there to stay as well and that their motivations are honest, even when they conceive freedom from a different optic. BSD advocates contemplate the freedom-guaranteeing clauses of the GPL as a limitation and not as a mechanism to ensure otherś freedom. As I say, given its historical record, there is not suspicion about the freedom friendlyness of the BSD licenses. But I tend to be wary of newcomers with vested interest, such as the shared source initiative from our friends (sarcastic) from Redmond, and I think you cant blame me for that. This company has yet way too much things to prove before it can be called a free community member by its own merits, and I honestly doubt they will ever do that. I think they just dont believe in the free software philosophy, they are just willing to take advantage of our good willingness, and I think we would be wise not to accept every initiative they want to throw at “apparently” collaborating with free software.

  18. David Mackey says: (permalink)
    November 17th, 2006 at 3:42 am

    I am a big fan of the Creative Commons. I have used it one one of my sites – a Koine Greek Open Source Project. It makes it very simple to know what rights the author and the user has.

  19. Next Generation Internet » Blog Archive » Open Source licensiering says: (permalink)
    November 19th, 2006 at 8:42 am

    [...] Här börjat gräva lite oorganiserat i hur de olika open source licensieringarna är uppbyggda. Vill bara dela med mig av denna läsvärda artikel. Hela hans kategori Free Software har många intressant vinklingar och artiklar. [...]

  20. Matthew Revell says: (permalink)
    April 24th, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    Licence proliferation…

    In the most recent LugRadio, we discussed licence proliferation.
    Our main conclusions were that:

    licence proliferation is damaging to free software because it makes it harder to remember what rights each licence grants us
    a licence picker, similar to …