Choosing an open source license

Choosing an open source license is determined by a company's business model and how developers will manipulate that code to reach a certain goal.

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Question: Your paper says that there are almost 60 licenses approved for open source software. Why isn't there more standardization — one "Gimme credit" license, one "Gimme fixes" license and one "Gimme it all" license?

Phipps: There's actually a good deal of standardization -- the majority of licenses are in Class B and are derivatives of the MPL (Mozilla Public License). Derivatives have proven necessary as some of the clauses of the MPL were specific to Mozilla, so each time a company has chosen to use a class B license, they have had to write their own. That was one of our motivations in creating the CDDL (Common Development and Distribution License) — end license proliferation by producing a generic class B license that needs no customization.

Question: To what extent does a company's business model determine which license it chooses for a product?

Phipps: It's the strongest driver -- the license defines how developers will be able to engage with the source code. Businesses trying to pioneer a new market will typically choose Class A licenses. Those trying to promote a development community around a code base will typically choose a Class B license. Those aiming to develop a unique line of business in a highly competitive existing market will typically choose a Class C license because only the copyright holder in a Class C license has the flexibility to act outside the scope of the license.

Question: How does an organization decide whether to use an existing license or draft its own?

Phipps: If you believe that OSI compliance for your license is important for your marketplace, you will probably decide to use an existing license like CDDL, Apache or GPL (General Public License), since the challenge faced in gaining OSI approval for new open source licenses is becoming prohibitive. I would recommend using an existing license and not developing a new one for a free/open source project — using your own license will cause mistrust from community developers and inhibit your success.

This 3 Questions originally appeared in a weekly report from IT Business Edge.

This was first published in May 2006

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