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perspectives on open-source and web services

Thursday, November 04, 2004

open source licenses

I was recently reminded of the inhibition that large companies have towards using open-source software. and even as an open-source advocate and developer, I have to agree with them on their concerns and inability to accept the GPL. the certain clause-of-concern(TM) that was brought up was:

"You must cause any work that you distribute or publish, that in whole or in part contains or is derived from the Program or any part thereof, to be licensed as a whole at no charge to all third parties under the terms of this License."

The fuzziness of the words 'distribute' and 'publish' are the main problems. when is software distributed? when it is moved from development servers to production? any time it is copied? what about publishing? does that occur when you host the executable code on your website?

GPL-aholics will readily admit that this clause turns the GPL into a viral license, one which will extend itself to every work ever remotely related to the original GPL'd work. they will also attempt to justify the viral nature of the license with long-winded raves about freedom (not as in beer, of course!) and the supposedly eternal truth that freedom of modification and distribution of software will continue on forever to create the best software programs.

and they're right, but only so far. if someone can see the source code, they can see all the operations of the program, and can modify the program to fit their own needs, giving them complete control over the software...something very enticing to businesses.

but these businesses also have their own methods of operation, their own trade secrets, and their own vulnerabilities that become woven into the software that they create, and they don't want to be forced to expose these rightly owned things to everyone.

this is why the other licenses like the the Apache Software License, the BSD License, and LGPL are gaining acceptance in the corporate world, and the GPL is not. it carries with it the full benefits of the open-source license, but leaves behind the viral requirement on the part of the open-source user.

I have to agree with this approach. Requiring that the users of your software expose source code is just as restrictive and anti-'freedom' as requiring the users not to expose source code. It's the opposite end of the spectrum, but the same principle as going proprietary. Call it 'publietary'.


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