Facebook opens up, but misses opening

Facebook took the first steps in what the company calls an ongoing experiment with open source software and developers. With its Facebook Open Platform, the social networking company is opening its API infrastructure, FQL and FBML parsers with implementations, common methods and tags, samples and dummy data, showing developers its development platform, tools and examples.

To the dismay of some open source figures, Facebook chose the Common Public Attribution License (CPAL) for most of the software (some is licensed under the similar Mozilla Public License). Facebook says it considered its license options, but felt MPL and CPAL were a good middle-of-the-spectrum approach. They are OSI-approved as open source, but are not as copyleft and community strong as the GNU General Public License or related licenses. Facebook also cited CPAL, which requires attribution, as a better match for network deployment and how software works today. This makes sense, but it also makes me wonder why not the Affero GPL?

Here’s the thinking. Google set off a fairly heated debate in the open source community with its anti-AGPL stance and discouragement of the license on its Google Code project hosting. Some of the resistance to Google’s AGPL aversion even equated to projects moving away from Google. I find it interesting that the predominant view on AGPL, and particularly that of Google, is a fairly negative one. In fact, there may be opportunity in AGPL. In the case of Facebook, I think it may have had an even bigger opportunity with AGPL given where Google is on the matter.

Sure, AGPL, which brings GPL code and modification sharing requirements to the SaaS or networked software model, may have been a bit riskier. Facebook says it considered AGPL, but encountered concern and confusion among developers over viral effects of the license. It’s interesting how viral can be both good, as in GPL development and community that is truly open, transparent and inclusive, or bad, as in extending requirements to code not intended or desired to be shared.

MPL and CPAL are logical choices, and Facebook should be commended for opening and providing the code under OSI-approved, open source licenses. It also deserves credit for a fairly clear and straightforward presentation of its licensing and terms. However, it borders on handicapping its open source strategy with a contribution agreement. The bigger opportunity, again, may have been AGPL. While Google defends its use of open source under what many consider a loophole and continues receiving criticism for its AGPL opposition, Facebook could have stood apart on the matter by embracing the AGPL. The license is similar to CPAL in that it is better suited to network deployment, but it is also in the GPL family, lending credibility and community benefits. This is not the last open source move from Facebook, and the opportunity may still be there, but the chance to really get in Google’s face does not come around often.

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