OSI seeks open source licence reform

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OSI seeks open source licence reform

Committee recommends creation of three licence categories.

The Proliferation Committee of the Open Source Initiative (OSI) has published the first draft of a report that seeks to curb the proliferation of open source licences. 

The Committee recommends the creation of three licence categories to help developers choose one of the more popular licences, thereby reducing the number of licences commonly used.

The proposal ignores calls from the open source community to standardise on the General Public Licence (GPL).

"We realise that the majority of open source projects currently use the GPL and that the GPL does not always play well with other licences," the draft states.

"We also realise that the GPL is a great choice for some people and not so great a choice for others. Thus, we cannot just recommend that everybody use the GPL.

"While such a recommendation would solve the licence proliferation problem, it is not realistic."

The OSI cannot revoke licences and has to rely on a licence's steward to do so. This is considered an arduous task because it generally requires the authorisation of all developers who have contributed to projects governed by the licence.

The Committee now proposes to create categories of licences. The first group contains licences that are popular and widely used or with strong communities.

The second group holds special purpose licences, while the third comprises redundant or non-reuseable licences plus those that cannot be categorised.

The proposition essentially creates a group of 'OSI-preferred' licences, and those that the OSI believes should be abandoned.

The first group includes the Apache licence, GPL, the Mozilla Public Licence and the Common Development and Distribution Licence (CDDL) created by Sun Microsystems for its OpenSolaris project.

The three special purpose licences provide terms that apply only to educational institutions, government entities or testing deployments.

The last group contains nine redundant licences and 24 non-reusable licences that are specific to their authors and cannot be used by others. The Committee describes many of these as "vanity licences".

The recommendations are currently published as a draft. The OSI board now needs to decide on a process for newly approved licences to be placed in one of the groups.

The OSI was pressured into reforming its open source licensing guidelines early in 2005, after Sun created its CDDL licence.

Critics asserted that the licence did not live up to the spirit of open source, although the debate over the CDDL has quietened down.

"Approving licences based simply on the compliance of the specification, rather than on the basis of the ability to further open source business models, represents a clear and present danger to the very core of these open source models," Martin Fink, vice president of Linux at HP, said in a keynote at LinuxWorld in Boston in February 2005.

"If this is the path the OSI continues to choose, it is picking a path towards irrelevance."

There are currently 58 open source licences. The abundance confuses enterprise users who have to review each licence before they deploy any of the software which it governs.

Companies in practice review a small number of licences and simply ignore any software that does not adhere to those.

Some licences are also incompatible, requiring developers to study their details before they mix and match software governed under different licences.

The OSI initially proposed to introduce a set of templates for open source licences that would make them easier to categorise but soon abandoned the plans.

The OSI is also tightening the guidelines for open source licences. Under the proposed changes, a licence cannot be duplicative, must be clearly written and understandable and must be reusable.
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