Open Source Licenses are Obsolete

Last week at OSCON, I made the seemingly controversial statement “Open Source Licenses Are Obsolete. During the Q&A period, Michael Tiemann of Red Hat and the Open Source Initiative took issue with my statement, pointing out just how much value open source licenses have created. I don’t know whether he really didn’t understand what I was saying or whether he was just intentionally misunderstanding to make his own point. But it’s clear to me at least that the open source activist community needs to come to grips with the change in the way a great deal of software is deployed today.

And that, after all, was my message: not that open source licenses are unnecessary, but that because their conditions are all triggered by the act of software distribution, they fail to apply to many of the most important types of software today, namely Web 2.0 applications and other forms of software as a service.

I’ve been banging this drum for many years. In fact, in preparing for my talk, I looked up an old discussion I’d had with Richard Stallman in Berlin during the summer of 1999. I had just given a talk (pdf) on what I was then calling infoware and now call Web 2.0, and made my point about the failure of open source licenses in the world of software as a service. Richard came up to the mike after my talk, and said:

“I came up to the mike again because I wanted to address the topic that Tim O’Reilly raised….a proprietary program on a web server that somebody else is running limits his freedom perhaps, but it doesn’t limit your freedom or my freedom. We don’t have that program on our computers at all, and in fact the issue of free software versus proprietary [only] arises for software that we’re going to have on our computers and run on our computers. We’re gonna have copies and the question is, what are we allowed to do with those copies? Are we just allowed to run them or are we allowed to do the other useful things that you can do with a program? If the program is running on somebody else’s computer, the issue doesn’t arise. Am I allowed to copy the program that Amazon has on it’s computer? Well, I can’t, I don’t have that program at all, so it doesn’t put me in a morally compromised position.”

He just didn’t get it. I was surprised to see Michael still misunderstanding the import of my comments, even today. What’s more, I more or less made this same point in my Open Source Paradigm Shift talk at OSCON in 2003 (pdf) , and specifically addressed the licensing issue in an Infoworld interview that I did at the time. But it seems that I’m finally getting out of the Cassandra zone, and getting a little bit of attention on this issue.

I don’t think that the answer is to try to make free and open source licenses that restrict the behavior of web applications, so that, for example, the GPL would bind Amazon or Google and keep them from using Linux. Instead, what we need is a new “open services definition,” which is what I began calling for at OSCON. We need a set of guidelines for open services that is as thoughtful and provocative as the original open source definition. And Michael may just have been yanking my chain, because OSI has already been giving this topic some thought. I’ve begun discussions with OSI for a brainstorming meeting soon. More soon on my thoughts for what ought to go into an open services definition and an accompanying open data definition.

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