On natural selection, evolution, and open source licenses

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.”

    Jay’s CAOS 12 report can be found here, while his blog post on about the report is here. On Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 1:00pm EDT we will be hosting a webinar to discuss some of the findings from the report. Register here.

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.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


#1 451 CAOS Links (caostheory) 's status on Thursday, 16-Jul-09 12:43:24 UTC - Identi.ca on 07.16.09 at 7:43 am

[…] http://blogs.the451group.com/opensource/2009/07/16/on-natural-selection-evolution-and-open-source-l… […]

#2 Simon Phipps on 07.16.09 at 8:14 am

Speaking as the person who decided to “retire” those two Sun-originated licenses, I would agree that the end-of-life of OSI-approved licenses can and should be determined by evolutionary signs – usage or the lack of it, superceding licenses and so on.

But I’d not agree at the approval end. When we view OSI-approved licenses purely as a vector for businesses to exploit business models, we omit the most important dimension of free/open source: community. OSI was set up exactly because the lack of a community-agreed definition and process was allowing businesses to claim openness where they lacked it. OSI is enforcing the OSD, and needs to do so in a deterministic way. But they are also stewards of the vision of a community, and they can and do delay license approval because a license violates the goals of open source.

As such I feel OSI’s current approach – discussion in a logic/legals “commons” and then approval by the board-as-senate – actually does a good job balancing the task. I don’t believe we need a thousand license-flowers to bloom; I do believe we need to continue to evolve the ones we have and retire their antecedents. Very, very occasionally, maybe a new idea will arise. But to simply allow every company to stamp “open source” on their latest wizard marketing wheeze is to cause market confusion – and legal expense for those of us who have to work in many communities and handle all those licenses – that just isn’t needed.

#3 Matthew Aslett on 07.16.09 at 9:05 am


Thanks for the insight. I absolutely agree that anarchy is not the answer and that if a license doesn’t fit the OSD it should not be approved, but I wonder whether the processes could be improved and modernized (social media tools for example) to make the process more fluid and involve others in the approval process.

#4 Simon Phipps on 07.16.09 at 9:31 am

Perhaps, but right now the “commons” discussion is on an open mailing list that anyone can use. It doesn’t get more open than that…

#5 Matthew Aslett on 07.16.09 at 9:56 am

Also, what could be done to make it easier to choose a license – in the way that the Creative Commons does http://creativecommons.org/license/

#6 451 CAOS Theory » On natural selection, evolution, and open source … « Computer Internet and Technology Articles. on 07.16.09 at 9:01 am

[…] post:  451 CAOS Theory » On natural selection, evolution, and open source … July 16th, 2009 | Tags: enterprise, licensing, links, linux, networks, open-source, opensorce, […]

#7 Jack Repenning on 07.16.09 at 11:27 am

Seems like it would be both interesting and evolutionarily useful if information about usage were widely and readily available. Though it might also be deceptive. For example, OH in a recent OpenLogic webinar, most OS projects use GPL, but most of the OS software to be found on actual systems uses something more Apache or CC-ish. Which number to publish? A connundrum.

#8 Jay Lyman on 07.16.09 at 12:38 pm

We attempt to address this conundrum in the report, but there is certainly no simple or correct answer. We cover the point made by OpenLogic and believe it is legitimate. This is why we considered the most popular open source licenses among HOSTED code and compared to the most popular open source licenses among code IN USE (based on vulnerability reporting, which is arguably a decent measure of software use).

What we found, somewhat surprisingly, was solid consistency among the two lists of most popular licenses. What does this tell us? It affirms that there are a dozen, some would say a handful, of licenses that cover almost all enterprise use of open source software. These are the survivors, successors and evolutionary winners thus far.

However, as noted in the report and by open source license expert Larry Rosen, in order to have these most popular licenses as they are — and popularity is indeed a measure of acceptability, durability and longevity — we really must have ALL of the open source licenses in the universe. Otherwise, the most popular open source licenses might just look like a collection of licenses from 12 or 5 vendors and their particular terms.

Glad to see some good discussion on this. TBC on the Webinar next week. Thanks all for your input.


#9 451 CAOS Theory » On natural selection, evolution, and open source … | Open Hacking on 07.16.09 at 11:34 am

[…] from:  451 CAOS Theory » On natural selection, evolution, and open source … This entry was posted on Thursday, July 16th, 2009 at 7:40 am and is filed under Linux, News, […]

#10 IT BLOG - 451 CAOS Theory » On natural selection, evolution, and open source … on 07.16.09 at 12:06 pm

[…] More:  451 CAOS Theory » On natural selection, evolution, and open source … […]

#11 GPL and Stallman FUD Now Arriving from the Freedom-apathetic or Freedom-hostile | Boycott Novell on 07.17.09 at 12:02 pm

[…] other attacks on the GPL include Black Duck’s black box surveys (mentioned briefly in [1, 2]) and a variety of posts that are innocently taking “open source” just where Microsoft wants it to be. […]

#12 451 CAOS Theory » 451 Group CAOS 12 Webinar - Open source licenses on 07.23.09 at 12:01 pm

[…] send a request for CAOS 12 Webinar slides to Jay Lyman, please. Thanks and we look forward to more conversation on open source software licenses. Permalink | Technorati Links | Bookmark on del.icio.us | digg […]

#13 451 CAOS Theory » Do not confuse Microsoft IP with Linux on 08.05.09 at 3:30 pm

[…] its intellectual property crosses over with open source software projects and vendors, which have evolved and matured to the point they are present in all layers, sectors and corners of our industry. There […]

#14 451 CAOS Theory » On the GPL, Apache and Open-Core on 08.28.09 at 5:48 am

[…] reasons rather than dogmatic commitment to licensing philosophy, and that – as we previously suggested – there is actually some benefit in the proliferation of different […]

#15 Advantages of Linux Smart Phones | Intro to SIP on 09.12.09 at 8:59 am

[…] 451 CAOS Theory » On natural selection, evolution, and open source … […]

#16 451 CAOS Theory » Is it time to rethink the open source license approval process? on 05.25.10 at 7:36 am

[…] previously argued that web-based tools also have the potential to make the process more fluid and involve others in […]