Licensing matters again in open source or not, virtualization and the cloud

Just when you thought open source and its licensing were getting a bit dull (okay, that will probably never happen) … Sure, the GPL is giving up some of its dominance. OEM, embedded, mobile and other expansion areas for open source are keeping open source licenses relevant, as are virtualization and cloud computing, and these are all areas where open source licenses such as the AGPLv3 hold both promise and burden, depending on who you ask. It’s clear open source licensing is heating up again as a topic and as we assess what is really open and what is really not.

Matt recently asked about Google’s recently announced WebM, whether it is open source and what this tells us about the open source license definition and approval process. WebM, a Web video format that is available for free, is intended as open and even open source, but it is not actually licensed under an OSI-approved open source license, thus making it fall short of the definition of open source.

We may see Google get that OSI approval. It’s certainly not out of the ordinary, and even Microsoft has successfully lobbied and certified some of its own licenses as open source. However, for the time being, WebM falls under the category of ‘not open source,’ and I believe reflects Google’s challenge of getting open enough. On the other hand, Google’s Android OS, which is also backed by a broad consortium of other software, hardware, wireless carrier and other players, is sometimes criticized or questioned on its openness, particularly amid its recent progress. The fact of the matter is the kernel and core of the OS is based on Linux and the OS itself is licensed under the Apache 2.0, one of the top open source licenses we discuss in our report, The Myth of Open Source License Proliferation and one we see gaining use and prominence.

‘Open enough’ is another topic we’ve discussed on the CAOS Theory blog before, but I believe we are seeing cases of non open source software, such as Amazon’s APIs for EC2 and its cloud computing services, being open and available enough in many regards. Yet the fact these are not open standards and not open source brings persisting concerns about what the future might hold. This also highlights how lock-in, which we saw fade to some extent as a factor driving open source, is becoming more significant again. Although there has been an evolving acceptance of some lock-in, particularly as the debate has moved to open data, many early and established cloud computing users are worried if they have a single source for their infrastructure and services (vendor and product shutdowns, consolidation and rigid roadmaps are among the legitimate customer fears). In response, many are looking to ‘alternative’ software pieces and stacks for their private and hybrid cloud computing endeavors, and this is frequently, if not mostly open source.

Back to the licensing matter, we’re also seeing some friction on software licensing from virtualization and cloud computing, where the wants and needs of suppliers and consumers do not necessarily align. In terms of open source, this dilemma shows how flexibility and leverage — either with the vendor or with the software itself given the ability to access source code and build on it or influence its development — can help set open source apart as users contemplate their licensing and deployment strategy. Still, there are also challenges that come with open source software licensing, such as requiring the sharing of code and modifications and limited use of the open source code in combination with other software and in other products.

All of this highlights the ongoing need and importance of the OSI and broader industry definition of open source and its licenses, particularly as open source continues to blur and blend with non-open source in mobile and other electronic devices, virtualization, cloud computing and elsewhere.

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