And the best open source license is …

UPDATE: The final vote is in and a winner has been declared, with Matt Asay and his arguments for the GPL taking the prize. You can see the debate or follow links to the other judges’ votes and thoughts here.

This is my assessment as a judge of the recent open source license debate held by the FOSS Learning Centre. We’ll have to begin with some qualifications and definitions, starting with the fact that there is no ‘best’ open source software license. Still, a star-studded open source software panel provided a lively, informative debate on the merits of some top open source licenses. For that, I congratulate and thank the panelists, Mike Milinkovich from the Eclipse Foundation arguing for the Eclipse Public License, Matt Asay of Alfresco arguing in favor of the GPL and David Maxwell from Coverity arguing for BSD. All three put forth some of the most important attributes and shortcomings of the three open source licenses, as well as other, related open source licenses. However, using a complex, proprietary formula awarding points for goodness and minuses for badness, I was able to deem a winner: Mike Milinkovich and the EPL. Perhaps fitting that the license that can best be described as the middle of the spectrum should be the winner. Here’s why:

Matt Asay kicked off the discussion, which became more of a debate as it developed, with a consistent message about GPL’s dominance among open source software projects, which is 70% or more based on most accounts (and considering GPLv2 and GPLv3). He also referred to monetization and the fact that GPL serves as the basis for successful support and services models, such as Red Hat. However, Matt did not initially mention the strategic and defensive benefits of GPL, which is often chosen because it mitigates the threat of a fork that someone can make proprietary. I was also hoping for him to address how GPL can deliver benefits of open source without having to share as in the spirit of the license, based on whether and how the software is distributed. Nevertheless, Matt made his most compelling arguments around the fact that GPL is the primary open source model and the license that developers understand and trust most. He furthered his argument later by agreeing EPL may be better for lawyers, but GPL is better for developers. Matt reinforced these ideas with his reference to large companies using GPL software, such as Google or TiVO, that gets it to vast numbers of users.

Mike Milinkovich spoke second with some background on EPL, its origin as a ‘legal document’ and how it links open source software to commercial products. He also hit on the fact that EPL covers patent rights, which is certainly important to vendors and developers. He later referred to the meaninglessness of Matt’s 70% GPL figure, based on the idea that software on repository is something different than software in use (where other licenses do have greater representation). However, our research indicates that the most popular open source licenses among hosted code are consistent with the most popular open source licenses among code in use, with GPL, BSD and EPL all in the top. Mike also referred to commercialization and money, which is certainly important to commercial open source, but did not give equal mention to community until later. Still, Mike earned back a point when he referred to monetization of open source software among traditional vendors and organizations beyond VC-funded, open source startups, where we are seeing significant growth for open source software. While I would have liked to have heard an argument in favor of EPL based on compatibility, Mike also made a good case for EPL in government — another consistent theme of the discussion — where code would belong to the public with commercial opportunity on top.

David Maxwell signaled a more rebuttal-type response and gave it in his arguments for the BSD license, which he introduced as the oldest license given its roots to Unix and the ’80s. David scored a point for simplicity and straightforwardness when he read the actual license, something his peers would’ve had a hard time doing. David did somewhat jump the gun, though, on rebutting with his counterpoints about GPL’s strict copyleft requirements, which he called ‘enforcement-based.’ Still, David recovered with an argument for BSD based on its emulation, which he credited for other popoular licenses such as the Apache Public License and Artistic License.

The debate portion was followed by some good discussion of business models, open core and proliferation with questions from the live and Web audiences. So why does my vote for the winner go to Mike and the EPL? While it was certainly close on my card and all three made compelling arguments, Mike and his portrayal of the EPL were the most realistic and pragmatic to today’s open source software in the enterprise. Communities, copyleft and the sharing that allows developers and projects to sustain effective, productive open source efforts must be balanced with commercial interests, endeavors and aspiration. Neither open source communities nor open source commercialization would be nearly as significant without one another, and Mike’s arguments and statements seemed most closely attuned to that.

Thanks again to the panelists, participants and FOSS Learning Centre for putting on the event. Please get involved in the discussion and watch the debate, comment here or elsewhere.

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#5 Shingai on 09.02.09 at 9:07 am

I searched the FOSS website, but was unable to find an actual transcript of the debate. Is there one available? Or perhaps any summaries? I’m interested in reading through some of the exact points since I am in the licensing phase of some tools that I myself am developing and am not exactly versed enough in legalese to read through the licensing documents themselves with full comprehension (at least in a timeframe that I can afford)

#6 Jay Lyman on 09.02.09 at 9:21 am

The link may not have been up yet, but you can actually watch the debate and hear the points for yourself here – http://fosslc.org/drupal/node/523

Thanks for your interest.

JL

#7 Mark Radcliffe on 09.03.09 at 9:16 am

I don’t think that this question has any meaning without disucssing what you are trying to achieve. The APL or BSD would be most appropriate for a company that wants to ensure that its software is widely used and is less concerned about obtaining revenue from a dual licensing model. GPL (and EPL) work best for a dual licensing model with the potential drawback that many corporations are skeptical about GPLv3. These choices are summarized in my OSBC presentation at http://www.slideshare.net/markradcliffe/ip-and-licensing-strategy-for-open-source-companies and my blog http://www.lawandlifesiliconvalley.com/blog

#8 Jay Lyman on 09.03.09 at 10:10 am

Thanks for posting Mark. I agree that asking which open source license is best does not have much meaning or relevance unless the second half of the phrase determines best for what? Best from most lawyers perspective? Best from most developers perspective? Best for distribution and development? Best for creation of extensions and plug-ins? Best for dual-licensing monetization? Best for support and services monetization? And the list goes on …

This debate was meant, I believe, largely as an introduction to some of the basic ideas, themes, differences and nuances of different open source software licenses.

I think that your license choices for the objectives you mention make sense, but it is also important to remember that all of these licenses and options serve to help one another, so that if a particular license does not fit your needs, objectives and situation, you can usually find one that does within the list of OSI-approved ones, and more frequently, within the top dozen most popular OS licenses. My point is that every situation is different, and we see a variety of business models using a variety of open source licenses — something that will likely continue. As Mike Milinkovich says, we have not even yet seen all of the possible combinations of licenses and business models.

Thanks again for the post. I encourage readers to check out your talk and blog.

JL

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