Posts Tagged OSS licenses

OSS 4.0 and licenses: not a clear-cut choice

The (always great) Matthew Aslett posted today on some of his most recent results on the future of OSS licensing, in what he calls “Open Source 4.0″, characterized by corporate-dominated development communities. This form of evolution was one of the prediction in my previous posts – not for ethical,or community reasons, but for entirely practical and economic reasons: collaborative development is one of the strongest model in all the 11 basic components that we have identified in the FLOSSMETRICS group. In fact, I wrote in the past something like

Many researchers are trying to identify whether there is a more “efficient” model among all those surveyed; what we found is that the most probable future outcome will be a continuous shift across model, with a long-term consolidation of development consortia (like Symbian and Eclipse) that provide strong legal infrastructure and development advantages, and product specialists that provide vertical offerings for specific markets

which, I believe, matches quite well Matthew’s idea about OSS4.0. One area where I am (slightly) in disagreement with Matthew is related to licensing; I am not totally sure about the increased success of non-copyleft licenses in this next evolution of the open source market. Not because I believe that he is wrong (I would never do that – he is too nice :-) ) but because I believe that there are additional aspects that may introduce some differences.

The choice of an open source license for a project code release is not clear-cut, and depends on several factors; in general, when reusing code that comes from external projects, license compatibility is the first, major driver in license selection. Licenses do have an impact on development activity, depending on the kind of project and who controls the project evolution. Previous studies that shown that restrictive, copyleft licenses do have a negative impact on contribution (for example in Fershman and Gandal, “Open source software: motivation and restrictive licensing”) has been refuted by other researchers (Stewart, Ammeter, Maruping, “Impacts of License Choice and Organizational Sponsorship on User Interest and Development Activity in Open Source Software Projects”). An interesting result of that research is the following graph:

devel

What we found is that for non-market sponsors and new code, there is an higher development activity from outside partners for code that is released under a non-copyleft license. But this implies that the code is new and not encumbered with previous license obligations, like for example the reuse of an existing, copyleft-licensed project. The graph shows the impact on development activity in open source projects, depending on license restrictiveness and the kind of “sponsor”, that is the entity that manages a project. “No sponsor” is the kind of project managed by a non-coordinated community, for example by volunteers; “market sponsor” are projects coordinated by a company, while “nonmarket sponsor” are project managed by a structured organization that is not inherently for-profit, like a development consortia (an example is the Eclipse Foundation). The research data identified a clear effect of how the project is coordinated and the kind of license; the license restrictiveness has been found to be correlated with decreased contributions for nonmarket sponsors, like OSS foundations, and is in general related to the higher percentage of “infrastructural” projects (like libraries, development tools, enabling technologies) of such foundations.

In general,the license selection follows from the main licensing and business model constraints:

  • When the project is derived from an external FLOSS project, then the main constraint is the original license. In this case, the basic approach is to find a suitable license from those compatible with the original license, and select among the possible business models the one that is consistent with the selected exploitation strategy.
  • When one of the partners has an Intellectual Property Rights licensing policy that is in conflict with a FLOSS license, the project can select a MIT or BSD license (if compatible with an eventual upstream release) or use an intermediate releaser; in the latter case there are no constraints on license selection. If a MIT or BSD license is selected, some models are of difficult application: for example, Open Core and Dual Licensing are difficult to implement because the license lack the reciprocity of copyleft.
  • When there are no external licensing constraints, and external contributions are important, license can be more or less freely selected; for nonmarket entities, a non-copylefted license gives a greater probability of contribution.

So, if you are creating a nonmarket entity, and you are free to choose: choose non-copyleft licenses. In the other situations, it is not so simple, and it may even be difficult to avoid previous licensing requirements.

The point on intermediate releasers require some additional consideration. An especially important point of OSS licenses is related to “embedded IPR”, that is the relationship of the code released with software patents that may be held by the releasing authority. While the debate on software patents is still not entirely settled, with most OSS companies vigorously fighting the process of patenting software-based innovations, while on the other hand large software companies defending the practice (for example SAP) most open source licenses explicitly mention the fact that software patents held by the releasing authority are implicitly licensed for use with the code. This means that business practices that rely on separate patent licensing may be incompatible with some specific OSS licenses, in particular the Apache License and the GPL family of licenses. The Eclipse Public License gives patent grants to the original work and to enhanced versions based on the original work but not to code not directly derived from the release, while permissive licenses like BSD and MIT give no patent rights at all.

If, for compatibility or derivation, a license that gives explicitly IPR rights must be selected, and the company or research organization wants to maintain the rights to use IPR in a license-incompatible way a possible solution may be the use of an intermediate releaser; that is, an entity that has no IPR on its own, to which the releasing organization gives a copy of the source code for further publication. Since the intermediate release has no IPR, the license clauses that require patent grants are not activated, while the code is published with the required license; this approach has been used for example by Microsoft for some of its contributions to the Apache POI project.

This may become an important point of attention for companies that are interested in releasing source code under an OSS license; most software houses are still interested in maintaining their portfolio of patents, and are not willing to risk invalidation through “accidental licensing” of IPR embedded in source code (one of the reasons why Microsoft will never sell a Linux based system).

As I wrote in the beginning, there is for a large number of consortia a clear preference for non-copyleft licenses; but it is not possible to generalize: the panorama of OSS is so complex, right now, that even doing predictions is difficult.

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A small and unscientific exploration of OSS license use

I was intrigued by an excellent (as usual) post by Matthew Aslett of 451 group, titled “On the fall and rise of the GNU GPL“, where Matthew muses on the impact of cloud computing and other factors in the decreasing role of the GPLv2 versus other type of licenses. Simon Phipps twittedyou only consider number of projects and not volume of deployed code. I have never found number of projects compelling” which is something that I absolutely believe is true: it is, however, quite difficult to imagine other possible ways to measure “impact” of a project. Do we have to add a weight related to usage? Then, given the large use of Linux, GNOME or KDE, OpenOffice, Firefox we would probably see a huge jump in the GPL and MPL percentages, at the cost of added uncertainty (as usage estimates are variable at best). As I am desperately try to avoid doing real work, I started using the Ohloh web site to extract slightly less than 100 projects (among the “active” ones, so there is already an initial preselection), along with the licensing and the number of committers for each project. My idea was to measure not only the number of projects, but how many people contributes to each, to see if this scenario gives different percentages. In a sense, the number of committers is a measure of “activity” or community interest in a project, and so my idea was to see if there was a difference between the percentages obtained with only the amount of projects listed under a license, and the number of committers using a license. The result is this:

license projects committers %projects %committers blackduck %
gpl2 49 15878 52.1% 62.9% 48.83
lgpl 8 2286 8.5% 9.1% 9.35
mit 6 1668 6.4% 6.6% 4
bsd 8 1150 8.5% 4.6% 6.26
gpl3 3 988 3.2% 3.9% 5.5
php 2 730 2.1% 2.9% 0.24
cddl 1 673 1.1% 2.7% 0.32
mpl 2 655 2.1% 2.6% 1.22
apache 10 557 10.6% 2.2% 4.02
boost 1 266 1.1% 1.1%
epl 2 241 2.1% 1.0% 0.46
python 1 133 1.1% 0.5%
cpl 1 6 1.1% 0.0% 0.56

The result is interesting: first of all, by looking in terms of contributors, the GPLv2 has an higher percentage of committers than that of projects; that is, there are more committers per project under the GPLv2 in respect to the normal share. The percentage of projects obtained is similar to that from BlackDuck (52.1% versus 48.83%), so I think that there is not too much bias in the choice of projects. The LGPL has more or less its fair share of committers, on a par with the number of projects and the results from BlackDuck. MIT is slightly higher, both in projects and commits, while the GPLv3 is under-represented – probably because the sample is too small, and in the project selection the “new” projects under the GPLv3 simply were not among the first 100 or so selected. A substantial difference exist for Apache-licensed projects, where the average number of committers seems smaller than its fair share; this may be an artefact of the project selected, or may be simply an effect of how Ohloh measures the active committers (I find strange that Boost has half of all the committers of all the Apache projects together!)

As I said, this is a little, unscientific experiment designed to explore what we can invent to better measure the “impact” of an OSS project. I would love to receive you comments and suggestions; on my side, I will try to leverage the FLOSSMETRICS database to try to find some numbers on a more consistent data sample.

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