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On natural selection, evolution, and open source licensesMatthew Aslett, July 16, 2009 @ 7:40 am ET
In our recent long-form report, CAOS 12 – The Myth of Open Source License Proliferation Jay Lyman made the case that the abundance and variety of open source licenses, rather than being a hindrance for open source adoption, had actually helped open source software and the vendors that choose it by providing “flexibility, effective development and distribution, and the ability to mix open source with proprietary code and licensing.”
In the report we also made the case that the proliferation problem isn’t as bad as it appears. For example, there are over 80 OSI-approved licenses – which admittedly raises the potential for confusion – but the ten most used account for over 93% of open source software in use, according to Black Duck.
We also made a comparison with the Darwinian theory of natural selection to account for the overwhelming popularity of those licenses, pointing out that the enterprise dominance of a small group of open source licenses has been driven by the selection of licenses that best suit business, community and personal goals.
We see this survival of the fittest in action with Sun Microsystems asking the OSI in September 2008 to regard two Sun-created licenses (SISSL and SPL) as inactive, effectively retiring the two licenses, and IBM’s move in April 2009 to supersede the Common Public License with the Eclipse Public License.
These were both deliberate moves by vendors to reduce the number of licenses, although it could also be argued that market forces had already spoken at that point and that all Sun and IBM were doing was removing redundant options.
A logical conclusion of the natural selection argument as it relates to open source licenses is that deliberate efforts to avoid redundancy and proliferation are actually an unnatural brake on the evolution of open source licenses in response to market forces – although it should be noted that we did not actually make that argument in our report.
However, in the context of natural selection there is an argument that an answer to license proliferation is not artificially reducing or restricting the number of licenses that are available but in assisting would-be license creators to select a license appropriate to their requirements.
From an evolutionary standpoint it might not always be in the best interests of open source for that selection to be an existing license, and it should also be considered that “failed” licenses are not be viewed in a totally negative light.
To quote Darwin himself:
“As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.”
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