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What Matters to Open Source: Licensing or Community?

More to FOSS Than Licenses

  • February 10, 2010
  • By Sean Michael Kerner
Sean Michael Kerner

When it comes to defining open source, licensing is a critical topic since it's the license that helps to make an application or effort open. But for Michael Tiemann, president of the Open Source Initiative, it's not necessarily the only key success factor for open source projects.

That might sound strange considering that licensing is the bread and butter for the OSI, the body that determines whether a license is open source. But Tiemann , who also serves as the vice president of Open Source Affairs at Red Hat, recognizes that licensing isn't the be all and end all for open source.

"I have come to place a much greater importance for alternative aspects of open source than just strict licensing," Tiemann told InternetNews.com. "I have come to believe that a license alone is neither a secret to success nor an absolution of sin."

For instance, beyond open source's licensing components is the idea of its community, which in many cases can be the ultimate arbiter of the success or failure of an open source effort: Simply making an application available under an open source license may not necessarily be enough for a project to succeed, nor is adopting an open source license some kind of magic pixie dust that you sprinkle onto a project to make it successful.

"It's a lot easier to bring tools to the community than it is to bring community to the tools," Tiemann said. "I think that the importance of community cannot be overestimated."

Still, while a strong community of contributors is critical to any open source effort, it's the licensing that for many truly differentiates open source from proprietary efforts, and plays a pivotal role in the any success.

"I do believe that licensing is a key component that underpins a successful community effort," Tiemann said. "The license, in a sense, dictates how the community can or should be expected to behave."

The OSI currently lists 66 open source approved licenses that together offer a broad set of options for open source. In recent years, even proprietary vendors like Microsoft have issued OSI-approved open source licenses.

Among the most popular open source licenses is the GPL, which is a reciprocal license, meaning that if you make code changes, you are required to contribute them back.

"If you have a GPL license, than you set a strong precedent and expectation that people are going to share and not take proprietary versions out of the system," Tiemann said.

On the other hand, end-to-end sharing is not a requirement to be open source.

"If you have a BSD license like Apple Unix [Mac OS X] does, then what they are basically saying is that they will share at their pleasure and you share at yours," Tiemann said. "For some people, that's a good deal; for others, it's a little unpredictable."

What licenses provide is a baseline for both developers and users. Tiemann noted that as an example, in U.S. court cases, it is the presence or absence of a law that ultimately determines how a dispute is settled.

"So if you have a good constitution, everyone is on the same page -- that's a good thing and that's what open source licensing can do," Tiemann said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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