Wednesday, October 19, 2005

You have the right to make copies.

Copyright law and software licensing have been top-of-mind this week. After a considerable gestation period, O'Reilly has published Open Sources 2.0. I wrote Chapter 5, which explores the interaction of business models, copyright law and software licensing practices in an open source business like Sleepycat, so I am glad to see the book in distribution.

The 2.0 book follows an entirely different book, Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution. The first book was published in 1999, and explored the underlying politics and technology of the open source movement. The new book focuses on how open source has transformed business and the economic systems on which they rely.

The original book is published on-line, and you can read it right now if you like. I enjoy the debate between Linus Torvalds and Andy Tanenbaum tremendously, and re-read it about once a year.

The new book is 445 pages of collected essays, and my freebie arrived in the mail just Monday, so I have only skipped through it lightly so far. I particularly enjoyed Wendy Seltzer's chapter on copyright politics. She articulates the argument for copyright limitations very well; Larry Lessig and others have been making the same argument for a long time, and it's good to see the case made so clearly in the new book.

This morning, I saw Jason Matusow's announcement that Microsoft has published three new source code licenses. Microsoft assiduously avoids the term "open source" for these, calling them "shared source" instead, but a pragmatist is more concerned about effect than naming. In effect, these licenses look a great deal like open source licenses the community understands.

The Microsoft Permissive License resembles the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license. It permits proprietary and open source use, modification and redistribution. The Microsoft Community License has an effect similar to the GNU General Public License (GPL). Like the Sleepycat Public License, which was designed to do the same thing, the Microsoft Community License is reciprocal, and requires sharing of modifications. Like the Sleepycat license, it's considerably shorter and simpler in construction than the GPL. The Microsoft Reference License is most like Microsoft's earlier source-available licenses; it's effectively a look-but-don't-touch license, allowing selected partners and customers to view Microsoft source code, but strictly limiting rights to modify or distribute copies.

One significant addition to Microsoft's licenses, compared to some older open source licenses, is the explicit grant of patent licenses. This reflects more recent thinking on intellectual property ownership, and builds on work done at Sun, IBM and elsewhere on patent licensing for open source software. Patents are a big issue in the debate over intellectual property rights and open source. It's good to see that Microsoft has considered them.

There will certainly be blowback in the community. Disdain for Microsoft is reflexive among some open source proponents. I can't speak to Microsoft's motivations in creating these licenses, but it's a safe bet that the company believes that it will derive tangible benefit from them, or it would not have spent the effort to produce them. I am not personally bothered by Microsoft's success, and I am always glad to see smart people do interesting things.

What is, to me, most interesting is that Microsoft has chosen to create these licenses at all. It is a tribute to both the strength of open source in the industry -- its success just can't be ignored -- and to Microsoft's legendary agility and willingness to adapt. Everyone has heard the story of Bill Gates' whole-hearted embrace of the Internet in the middle 1990s. That was certainly good for Microsoft and its customers. It's much to early to say that this is as significant a shift in philosophy, but this is the company that just a few years ago viewed open source as a threat to its existence. Just by publishing these licenses under its own brand, Microsoft has moved a tremendous distance quickly.

The real test, of course, is what software Microsoft makes available under each of these licenses. Open Sources 2.0 makes the case strongly that open source is about collaboration, so that widely distributed people can create valuable artifacts by working together. To the extent that Microsoft embraces this philosophy, and to the extent that it gives its customers an opportunity to work together in that way, this is an exciting development.

Good job, Jason.


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