GPL 3 Eyed As Way To Slow Proliferation Of Open-Source Licenses

Following years of consultation with academic institutions, industry and open-source developers, the Free Software Foundation is readying a proposal for GPL 3 that will attempt to eliminate the small distinctions among the 58 OSI-approved open-source licenses to stop unnecessary proliferation of licenses, said Eben Moglen, a Columbia University law professor and general counsel to the Free Software Foundation.

GPL 3 will be discussed at LinuxWorld Expo this week. While it won't be finalized for at least 18 months, any effort by the Free Software Foundation, or any other open-source organization, to pare down the dizzying array of open-source licenses will help CIOs and bewildered businesses make sense of the open-source license landscape, said Hewlett-Packard's top Linux executive.

"A big part of what makes open source work is the licensing, but creating too many open-source islands that don't always connect is a bad thing," said Martin Fink, vice president of Linux at HP, Palo Alto, Calif.,, during an interview with CRN following Red Hat's Enterprise Linux 4 launch Monday night. "You can intermix and commingle with [open-source code], but if all we have is 100 different licenses, it's a bad thing. "

Three years ago Linux backers worried that the emergence of too many Linux distributions would lead to the same kind of fragmentation that hindered the Unix industry. With that issue largely in the rearview mirror, the same observers worry now that the abundance of open-source licenses is causing confusion that has and could continue to stall business use.

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During his keynote at LinuxWorld Expo on Tuesday, Fink will issue a call to arms for the industry to work together to resolve the proliferation problem before it becomes a stumbling block for business adoption.

He called the current open-source license approval process "brain dead" and advocated a new system that would bring the number of mainstream open-source licenses to a more manageable number of less than 10.

"When you get to 60 licenses, it's a matrix of hell," Fink said, agreeing that the GPL 3 could be an effective way to help stop the proliferation. "There's ambiguity in the GPL as a result of the technology evolving. It needs to remove the ambiguity."

Like other observers, Fink said most open-source licenses are variants of a handful of four or five open-source licenses. Fink and others said the proliferation stems from individual companies and organizations, such as HP's nemesis Sun Microsystems, that make minor modifications to popular licenses including Mozilla so they can brand them under their own name.

Last month, for example, Sun announced its OSI-approved Community Development and Distribution License (CDDL) for its forthcoming Open Solaris. CDDL is considered a minor variation of the Mozilla Public License. Until the Mozilla Public License debuted in 1998, the most commonly used classic licenses were GPL, LGPL, BSD and MIT, according to the OSI.

The proliferation issue also took center stage earlier this month at the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) Enterprise Linux Summit in Burlingame, Calif.

Lawrence Rosen, an attorney with Rosenlaw and Einschlag, Ukiah, Calif., who spoke at the summit, said potential open-source customers are concerned about license compliance problems that could crop up during corporate transactions and large sales. They are more concerned with these issues than either copyright or patent issues, he said, adding that software vendors are more worried about potential legal and public relations issues.

At the recent OSDL conference, several attorneys said confusion over open-source licenses and how they apply to their internal and external use, along with possible issues of open-source code commingling with proprietary code, has already turned off some potential customer migrations from Unix and Windows to Linux.

"There are a lot of different licenses, and people are politically motivated in the way they're distributing software," said Ira Heffan, an intellectual property attorney with Goodwin and Proctor, Boston. "A lot of companies won't use open source because they don't understand the issues."

But he and others said the proliferation of open-source licenses results from choice provided by open-source software, a characteristic that distinguishes it from proprietary software development.

The proliferation of open-source licenses mirrors the proliferation of Linux distributions, open-source projects and communities that have sprung up as healthy byproducts of the software development model.

Rosen classified the five categories of open-source licenses as academic licenses such as Apache; reciprocal licenses such as the GPL; commercial licenses such as those of IBM, Mozilla and Sun; standards and testing licenses, such as Open Group and W3C licenses; and content licenses, such as the Creative Commons licenses designed for music, art, software and other works of expression.

Gordon Haff, a senior analyst at Illuminata, said most open-source licenses can be boiled down to variants of two open-source trees: the GPL and the BSD. Haff said he doesn't envision that concerns will slow down corporate use to any significant degree.

In fact, Haff contends that the proliferation of so many open-source licenses is a direct result of the GPL's commercially unfriendly tendencies. Haff said that the Free Software Foundation has a tough challenge meeting commercial needs because it strongly opposes any effort that could curb free and open software. "The GPL is fairly restrictive in the way that the code can be combined with open source," said Haff.

The GPL governs the development and distribution of Linux, for example. Unlike the GPL, other more commercially friendly open-source licenses such as the Apache License and IBM Public License allow users and developers to comingle and distribute proprietary code with open-source software.

It's unclear whether the terms of the enhanced GPL 3 will be more commercially friendly than its 15-year-old predecessor, the GPL 2. The Free Software Foundation is trying to find a balance that addresses the proliferation problem and business issues while also keeping open source free and open.

At the Enterprise Linux Summit, Moglen said GPL version 3 will focus on global licensing uniformity and reducing differences among licenses. The idea is to find "common ground" so customers can choose among three or four "styles" of open-source licenses, Moglen said.