Life at Eclipse

Musings on the Eclipse Foundation, the community and the ecosystem

Licenses Matter

I’ve been thinking about posting on this topic for a while, and recent posts by Greg Stein and Eric Raymond have finally motivated me to get off my butt and git ‘er done.

As I mentioned recently, the EPL is on a bit of a roll at the moment. And that is a very good thing. However, what I find interesting is that – and this is implicit in the words of both Greg and Eric – is that many in the open source community believe that there are only two interesting positions in the licensing debate: GPL or BSD/Apache. A position which I believe is just plain wrong.

Here is the reason: business models are driven by licensing models. And there are many more business models under the sun than those supported by only those two bipolar licensing positions. In particular, “weak copyleft” licenses such as the EPL are great licenses for those who want to build a ubiquitous software platform with a commercial ecosystem. That is because it allows for commercial licensing of products built on top of EPL-licensed code while also requiring modifications to the platform itself be contributed back to the community. This balance is particularly useful for companies and entrepreneurs that want to create industry platforms.

Of the two, I would have to say that Greg is the most wrong, because he bases his argument on the notion that developers should pick their license based on their personal philosophy. And apparently developers only have personal philosophies that fall into either completely permissive or completely free, with nothing in between. He got it particularly wrong with his closing comment:

Middle-of-the-road licenses like MPL, EPL, and CDDL are wishy-washy. They can’t decide to be permissive, or to maintain Freedom. Choose a philosophy.

Companies and (many) developers do not pick licenses based on a philosophy. They pick them based on their desired business model. I am certainly willing to agree that some people are not interested in thinking through the economic results of their choices. I’m not willing to agree that applies to everyone.

I agree with the content of Eric’s post because find Eric’s economic arguments quite persuasive. I do believe that open source software production is more efficient. But I do not expect that commercially-licensed software will disappear for a very long time, if ever. Personally I believe that the eventual steady state is one where open source platforms provide a commons of infrastructure that supports a wide variety of commercially licensed software and content. However, in one of his comments, Eric pointed to the BSD as the “classic choice”. I would assert that the EPL and similar licenses provide equal, if not better, benefits.

I am a big fan of rational choice economists such as Steven Levitt and Tim Hardford. EPL-like licenses send the correct economic signals to rationally incent the behaviour that I want to see: commercially profitable ecosystems built on top of vibrant open source platforms.

Written by Mike Milinkovich

April 27, 2009 at 2:27 pm

Posted in Open Source

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