The free and open source software industry should follow the lead of the Creative Commons project to make it easier for developers to understand and choose open source licenses.
That was one of the main messages that emerged from a debate on open source licensing at LinuxWorld in the UK last week, with Jono Bacon, Ubuntu community manager at Canonical Ltd, leading calls for the simplification of open source selection.
Most free software developers don’t care about licenses, they write code and then pick a license, he said. With the GPL v3 you have to have an understanding of the law to understand it, we need something very much like the Creative Commons people are doing that makes it easy to understand licensing.
Officially launched in 2001 by Lawrence Lessig, the Creative Commons project is focused on encouraging the sharing of audio, image, video, text, and educational works. As part of doing so it offers a form-based questionnaire that points users to the most suitable license for their requirements, and also offers human-readable translations of licenses.
Linux kernel engineer, John Masters, maintained that it was important for developers to understand the legal ramification of the licenses they chose, but agreed that help with selecting a license would be a good thing. I would like to see a Creative Commons-type website where we can have someone recommend a license, he said.
The suggestion was raised during a debate on the relative merits of the forthcoming version three of the General Public License, which suffered without the representation of the Free Software Foundation, but nevertheless threw up some interesting viewpoints.
I look at this change to the GPL a little bit like the debate over gay marriage in the US, where people are giving away right rather than giving new rights, stated Linux International executive director, John Maddog Hall, despite insisting that he did not want to be involved in the debate.
That did not stop him voicing his distaste for the way in which the current draft of the GPL v3 attempts to deal with software patents and digital rights management. I view v3 of the GPL as a major change of direction, Hall said.
I think there should be a GPL v2.x that cleans thing up. We shouldn’t be using the same name [for GPL v3] we’ll call it the Stallman License, he added, not entirely seriously.
The anti-DRM stance of the draft GPL v3 has already prompted an argument between Linux maintainer Linus Torvalds and FSF founder and original GPL author, Richard Stallman, and the LinuxWorld debate also centered on whether a free software license was the best place to deal with the issue.
The GPL is the constitution of the free software movement and it needs updating to map out where we would like to be, said lead Samba developer, Jeremy Allison. DRM is one of the biggest issues that we as free software advocates face today.
Others were not so sure. I feel that some of the issues to do with patents and DRM need to be addressed, said Masters. Whether they need to be addressed in the GPL v3, I’m not sold on that yet.
While there have been fears that the issues could split the free and open source software communities and lead to increased licensing complexity, Bdale Garbee, chief technologist for HP’s open source and Linux organization, said there was room for compromise, and encouraged people to make their feelings known.
There’s still time for people who want to be involved in the GPL v3 process to get involved, he said. We are very optimistic that we will end this process with a license that serves our needs, and the needs of the free software movement as well or better than GPL v2.
It was also pointed out that while there was opposition to the GPL v2 when it was first introduced, the license is now widely accepted. Canonical’s Bacon maintained that to expedite the same process for GPL v3, more simplification was needed.
There’s a disconnect between the license junkies and the programming junkies, he said. The GPL v2 is now understood through culture, until that happens with the GPL v3 we are going to have this issue.