Musings on software licensing

Very recently, the project has made two very important announced that will help shape the way the project will work and evolve in the future. As we are in the eve of the release of 2.4, I thought it might be the time to discuss the reasons underlying our recent choices.

First, we’re modifying the way we handle the copyright of contributors. As you may know , has had a copyright assignment system just like many other major Free Software projects out there. The idea is that for practical and perhaps political reasons as well, major Free Software projects require contributors to sign an agreement between them and the project (or the entity stewarding it). This can help in many respects: In case of legal hassles affecting the project, it is expected that an entity grouping several dozens (or several hundreds) of contributors will better be able to fight back and have a better legal standing in a court. It also protects contributors from being sued on an individual basis and it generally brings some coherence, legally speaking, in a project. It may worth to note that on a legal point of view, the only way code is identified as being part of one specific Free and Open Source Software project is by making sure it has the same copyright.

An example of that is the copyright assignment the FSF requests for GNU software projects hosted on the Savannah reporitory. A well-known counter-example of this is the GNU/Linux kernel. The kernel has hundreds of different contributors, and the legal coherence of it is in some way very weak. The refusal of Linus Torvalds to change the licensing scheme (from GPL v2 to GPL v3) is in this regard not the main issue for the kernel to switch to the GPL v3. It is the number of scattered, sometimes even dead kernel hackers who own the copyright on their code and this number make it very difficult in practice, although possible in theory, to change the licence overnight. An important distinction should be made here: In the case of (I cannot speak for other projects here but I think it’s the same), contributors do not lose their ownership of the code or content they contributed. Rather, they agree to a joint copyright ownership with the copyright steward who has to have the whole copyright or at least the copyright on the main part of the code.

This system has been improved for the project. Non-code contributions have been set free of the joint copyright assignment, and some « legalese » around the spurrious « intellectual property », if it ever meant anything coherent, has been rewritten as well.

Perhaps the most mediatic announcement was not the change in the copyright assignment system; it was, I think, the announced move from LGPL v2 to LGPL v3. Some credit me for having introduced this question first in the public debate. I would not stand to such a claim, although it is true that I initiated a while ago some debate on this question. Readers here shall be reminded that we did not have a discussion to move to GPL, because we felt it was an entirely different discussion. Nonetheless, there was a clear support for LGPL v3 during those discussions and remember that -as unpleasant as it looks, it is nonetheless true- Sun being the copyright holder of, it could have changed the licence the way it suited its own interests only. That’s true in theory, but of course politics and cooperation with thousands of contributors in the case of just cannot make Sun « go mad » without some spectacular circumstances. But who said Free Software was a democratic system? It always was a transparent, inclusive system, a system where everybody has rights, but not a democracy. In this regard, there was some kind of very positive « astral conjunction » that made Sun’s interests and the ones of the community to converge.

Simon Phipps blogged about the main reason he feels we moved to LGPL v3: Better protection against software patents. With all due respect to Simon, I think he misses an even more important reason: Deprecation, dependencies, and ultimately liability. When you look at the adoption of the (L)GPLv3, you might be tempted to follow the trends found by companies such as Palamida. Its adoption is slow and steady. But that just does not mean anything, as it completely ignores the almost mechanical effect induced by package dependencies on the GNU/Linux platform. As soon as the core libraries and the compiler used to compile the kernel (GCC) move to the new version of the licence, the entire set of packages will have to move as well because of the dependency system. Note that in order to start this domino effect, you only need one or two packages: GCC and glibc. And if you care to ask, these two are expected to move in a few months, unless I’m already behind the schedule. Which means, in essence, that while may be the biggest piece of software to upgrade its licence to LGPL v3 shortly before releasing its own 3.0 (notice the marketing impact this game of words will have on… the ten people in the know), the whole Linux distributions will eventually upgrade their licences as well.

These news does of course upset Novell, as it is one more move against their brilliant scheme of alliance with Microsoft (« ’till thy death, my beloved master »). In effect, it nullifies the legal threats from the integration of Microsoft’s own intellectual property into If you wonder what I’m talking about, just consider the work that is being done jointly by Novell and Microsoft on the now famous plugins and converters to OOXML. Some of the codes, ideas, and methods, let alone presumed patents will find their way back inside, in two places. First there will be a full import and export filter developed by Novell and Microsoft in the Novell edition of (ain’t that sweet?) that will permeate Microsoft’s intellectual property. Second, there will also be the OOXML import filters that will ship with OOo 3.0 and there certainly is Novell’s IP in there, which indirectly means that there could be Microsoft’s IP included.

Before the release of the (L)GPL v3, only Novell could grant you, lucky you, the complete protection on the code (hence creating a lack of balance among, courtesy of Microsoft). Fortunately for us though, the licence upgrade is now protecting from the claims of Microsoft and anyone legally affected by them. Patent protection is thus the second major advantage to this upgrade, as Simon rightly pointed out.

But things do not stop there for The Advisory Board is now meeting regularly (although not that often) and is initiating conversations on the future of I think it’s very important to have this venue; every stakeholder should be adequately represented, and matters that are being discussed are of general interest for the community. And regardless of the time lapse between the moment things have been decided and the one they are to be executed, it is nonetheless good. Now we are moving forward, full thrust.

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