Probably unintentionally, three separate ongoing Open Source Initiative-1 (OSI) license-review actions—in progress during October/November 2008—offer enterprise software users some actionable advice when it comes to the use of free software, open source, and standards:
- Certification that a product or technology meets a standard is the best way to enforce a standard; keep licensing out of it
- Be careful of “free” software if you really want source-code access; so-called open source licenses do not always permit source code access and redistribution rights
- Understand the meaning of the open source definition (OSD) and what an OSI-approved license actually buys you
The OSI’s reasons for the unusually detailed discussions-2 appear to be its accelerating concern about proliferation in open source license types. This is a concern OSI has been discussing for a few years, especially beginning in September 2007 when Microsoft (MSFT) surprised the enterprise software world by asking for OSI approval of two of its “shared source” licenses. Proliferation appears to have taken on new urgency, probably because the organization realizes if proliferation continues, the OSI and its OSD will become meaningless. The standards group involved—the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS)—wants to stay out of the license fray, according to OSI board members or emeriti, but may be compounding the confusion among IT users as a result.
The three actual license requests are secondary to the possibly unintentional implications but each helps illustrate one of the issues.
One request is for an open-source license related to the Unstructured Operation Markup Language (UOML) specification. The license request was made by a Chinese software provider, Sursen, which positions itself as the “Chinese Adobe (ADBE).” The UOML specification was set up as a standard by the China Electronics Standardization Association to normalize read and write access for electronic documents. It has been approved by OASIS, including by 51 software suppliers, users and universities, including EMC (EMC), Google (GOOG), HP (HPQ), Sun (JAVA), the University of California at Berkeley, the U.S. Department of Defense, and other governments and multinational companies voted to approve the UOML.
Among other issues, the OSI’s apparent hesitance in approving a UOML-related license (it has been turned down once and is back for a second bite at the apple) is that it would make more sense for OASIS to certify adherence of a product to its standard than to try to enshrine a standard in license terms and conditions. Users that want to make sure a product does what it’s advertized to do should not depend on what the license says.
A second request is for an open-source license for fonts. It is proposed by SIL International, a faith-based organization that studies, documents, and assists in developing the world’s lesser-known languages. The request is literally and figuratively highly academic but the reason behind the request cuts right to the differences between free and open source software. SIL apparently wants to use an open-source license mechanism to protect its intellectual property (IP) but not for its own monetary benefit. It wants to give away the fonts but keep others from using the fonts for commercial gain. But that’s an OSI no-no.
The whole idea of open source is freedom to use and distribute the code any way you want, not just that the code is free as in “available at no cost.” Perhaps related, some individuals within the OSI appear to want to move the group back closer to the Free Software Foundation (FSF) philosophy from which OSI split in the 1990s. The FSF, while it has nothing against commercial gain, says software is “free as in speech, not air.”
The third interesting outstanding request for license approval to OSI is from a post-doc Biology fellow at Emory who finds that none of the existing OSI license types offer the ability to obligate users of his software to cite one of his scientific articles about his software as a form of attribution, which is something he apparently needs for academic reasons. He wants to add a clause to the Academic Freedom License (AFL 3.0), one of about 50 OSI-approved open-source license types. AFL was written by Larry Rosen, Counsel Emeritus to the OSI, to remove all of the FSF and other non-legal philosophical issues from open source licenses. Rosen is against the change proposed by the Emory fellow because it is against the principles of open source to demand such an obligation. No change is needed to simply add a request to that effect however.
The bigger issue with the AFL-related request is that AFL is Attorney Rosen’s license not the OSI’s. That is true of all the approximately 50 other OSI-approved licenses. In “approving licenses,” be they the dreaded Microsoft’s shared source licenses or one written by OSI’s own Counsel Emertus, OSI is simply saying that the license complies with the 10 characteristics of its OSD. Both users and suppliers still better read the fine print.
Action Item: The net of these three prolonged (and ongoing as of November 10, 2008) discussions illustrates why free software, open source, and “open standards” are neither important buying criteria for information technology (IT) users or market dynamics that investors should consider. Nothing is free. Open is an amorphous word. And most open source discussion is a matter of contractual terms and conditions, not a business model investors can bet their capital on nor a specific type of software a user can bet his or her business on.