Monday, March 12, 2007

Licensing And Standards

At last week's Open Source Think Tank event in Napa, one of the interesting issues that came up, and always comes up at these events, was licensing. There was the usual contentious presentation on GPL v3, some of the changes it's bringing, or proposing and, of course, the usual presentation on the way-too-many licenses out there.

This is one of the points with which I strongly disagree. I don't believe there are too many open-source licenses, per-se. I believe there are many open-source licenses that don't make sense, but the number of licenses isn't the issue. I think this is a false issue caused by something else - licensing standards.

The reality is that there are many more closed-source licenses than there are open-source licenses. In fact, I'm willing to bet that some corporations out there have more licenses with a single vendor than the total number of open-source licenses approved by the OSI.

The pain that companies have with open-source licenses is that they're not negotiable. One either accepts the GPL or the MPL or any other open-source license or one has to reject the entire proposal. With the closed-source licenses companies often re-negotiate the license itself. There is more flexibility with closed-source licenses because of this ability to individually negotiate the terms, if the licensee is big enough, that is.

In fact, I remember a phrase I learned about 18 years ago when I first joined Oracle - throw-away clause. These were clauses that were put in the license agreement with the expectation that the licensee would ask for them to be removed. The licensor would remove those clauses so the licensee's attorney could "feel good" about having done something positive for their client.

Personally, I think the non-negotiable licenses are much superior. One always knows what one is getting with an open-source license. Open-source licensing provides standardization to the licensing model which, believe it or not, is a superior model. You may not agree with all the terms of an open-source license but you know that everyone is subject to the same terms and that helps level the playing field.

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