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6 March 32010 / Robin Wellner

A Case for License Proliferation

The OSI, Google and many others agree: license proliferation is a bad thing.

But is it now?

Lawrence Rosen, attorney and author of AFL and OSL claims (PDF, recommended reading) that License proliferation can be a good thing.

And I think he is right. There are three reasons for my point of view:

  1. Open Source is still young. Yes, even Free Software is around for a relatively short time. Licenses still need to be developed, to evolve. Just like in the realm of animal and plant species, there is and will be a huge amount of licenses. Most of them won’t stand the test of time. And that is good. We need to experiment, to get a healthy and diverse license ecosystem. And let’s not forget the main reason to be against license proliferation is incompatibility. And I think that will happen. In the future, new licenses will increasingly often be designed for compatibility. This is already happening. License proliferation today will speed up this process.
  2. Commercial vendors that are new to Open Source will want to create their own license. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all, but we need them. Stallman always allowed commercial distribution with the GPL for a reason: he knew that we need the companies as allies, not as foes.
    Companies are used to writing custom licenses (think EULA), and accepting that they write their own open licenses at first, will make the change easier to companies. (Note: I did not think of this myself, but read it somewhere else. I forgot where, but I’ll update it with a reference if I find out where it came from.)
  3. We have a problem, that is not evident now, but might be later: who gets to determine which licenses are “okay” and which are not? At the moment, there are two obvious groups: the OSI and the FSF. But what will happen in the future? The only way out to prevent a license lock-down is to have the licensors themselves decide what license is best. And we need a diverse ecosystem for that.


Leave a Comment
  1. qubodup / Mar 6 2010 11:46

    License proliferation is futile, if it means writing new

    1. Yes they need to develop, but it is not the philosophy that needs developing, but rather the wording of the licenses, so they comply with law and the philosophy. This to me means: new versions, rather than new licenses.

    2. A dominant (or high-reputation) license needs to exist (GPL) so that corporations can pick it, without fear. Is this a good thing? Would it be of any use to other software, if Plan 9 used the GPL? Heck I don’t know.

    3. GPL is a license-lock-down, as soon as a contributor commits under GPL without giving special permission to change license (or transfers ownership). This is intended. OGRE devs for example decided that this is a problem and first changed to LGPL and now to MIT.

    MIT/3-BSD/zlib, LGPL, GPL, AGPL, CC-BY-SA, CC-BY, what else would we need? I would like a license that would be just as well for code and content and have GPL philosophy.. the same for CC-BY and MIT/etc.

    Another thing that might be more useful than writing new licenses, is making short summaries like the CC did. Maybe.

    • Robin Wellner / Mar 9 2010 19:04

      1. Our opinions differ here, I guess. I really think there are radically different ways to think about licenses out there that haven’t been discovered yet, which are impossible to implement in current licenses. Time will tell.

      2. I agree to the first statement, however I don’t think that should be GPL. Something more modern might make managers accept Open Source sooner. But that doesn’t change my premise: that having loads of licenses might not be a problem.

      3. I meant a different kind of lock-down: our freedom bound by choice of licenses for original works. It might be unlikely that it will happen, seeing the organisations who have influence in the world of licenses love freedom, but you can’t dismiss the possibility.

      The “what else do we need?” mentality worries me. There is a very real chance that our current licenses are not fit for the future. What do we do then? Also, the last part of that paragraph is interesting. I would say CC-BY and CC-BY-SA are good contesters for “any content” licenses. Unfortunately, they are not very good for licensing computer programs.

      The short summaries are actually a thing I really hope the OSI or someone else will do. They should, at any rate.

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