OSI Group to Slow License Influx?

The Open Source Initiative (OSI) wants to get a handle on the number of open source licenses, but it needs a little help from its friends first.

Laura Majerus, OSI director of legal affairs, announced the formation of the License Proliferation Committee in April to devise ways to slow down the number of new open source licenses, as well as remove or, at the very least, lessen the issues caused by license proliferation.

Majerus, who chairs the committee, wants to begin discussions in June but wants more input from the open source community beforehand.

“I think it’s very important that we hear from as many different interests as we can — different types of people with different concerns about their licenses,” Majerus said.

Efforts to obtain this input have been limited to an announcement on the OSI’s licensing discussion list. What’s more important than the numbers, though, is the right mix of people, she said.

“It’s kind of a fine line between getting a small enough group, where the group dynamics work so we can get some actual work done and getting input from as many people as we can,” Majerus said.

OSI certifies open source licenses that abide by the 10 terms of the Open Source Definition. The terms range from including the application’s source code and granting the ability to create derivative works of the original software to free licensing terms.

The first order of business for the License Proliferation Committee, Majerus said, will be to find some reasonable criteria for tiering licenses. One way would be to create three tiers — use, do not use and recommended — which give developers a starting point when trying to choose a license that suits them best, she added.

“There are certain licenses that have been accepted by the community, and there are some that are only used by one or two groups. It would be helpful for someone who comes into this cold to be able to figure that out without having to look through them all themselves,” she said.

“The tiering process is going to be of use to people who don’t have a lot of background knowledge of open source, and there are a lot of folks out there like that.”

The committee will also work on creating educational materials to help developers pick out the traits of the particular licenses that suit them best. Hand-in-hand with that effort would be the creation of a license wizard, an application that walks a developer through the license requirements they want in their open source license.

What the OSI committee will not do, however, is force an open source project to re-license their project or eliminate an open source license entirely. Instead, it will discuss encouraging OSI-approved license holders to deprecate, or de-emphasize, their licenses like Intel did in March with its Intel Open Source License.

In the early 1990s, the number of open source licenses wasn’t a concern. You had the GPL , Lesser GPL, BSD and MIT licenses, which are now called the “classic” licenses.

Then corporations, not satisfied with the limitations that the classic licenses imposed on their business models, started putting out their own licenses.

Today, there are 58 different open source licenses, many with only small variations to the others but enough to create confusion among developers and organizations looking to adopt an open source license of their own.

The subject of license proliferation came to a head in early 2005 with Sun’s decision to release 1,600 of its OpenSolaris patents under the Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL), approved by the OSI in January.

It prompted Dan Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation, to say license proliferation is the largest threat to the open source community.

While Intel didn’t eliminate its license entirely, it asked OSI to de-emphasize the license by removing it from the list of licenses on its site (it’s still there at press time).

Sun is already considering a similar move.

Simon Phipps, the company’s chief technology evangelist, said Sun is considering de-emphasizing the Sun Public License and Sun Industry Standards Source License, now that it has the CDDL.

“We are reviewing those licenses, and I would be surprised to see us want to use them again,” he said.

The consensus reached among the committee members will be forwarded to the OSI board of directors for possible adoption by the organization.

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