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The Open Source Licensing Implosion

I read Bob Sutor's words about an impending implosion in both open source licenses and standards-setting bodies, and found myself nodding: It's not just that there are "too many open source licenses," but that the consequences for blithely creating new ones are finally becoming concrete.

I read Bob Sutor's words about an impending implosion in both open source licenses and standards-setting bodies, and found myself nodding: It's not just that there are "too many open source licenses," but that the consequences for blithely creating new ones are finally becoming concrete.

I doubt anyone reading this would say there aren't enough open source software licenses out there. That said, the vast majority of open source products out there use a small handful of licenses -- the GPL, the Apache license, the MIT license, the various "badgeware" licenses, and so on. The rest tend to be outriders or derivatives of varying kinds, each with their own justifications for being adopted.

It was easier to get away with a broad proliferation of licenses back when open source was still a relatively rare and exotic variety of bird in the software bestiary. Now that open source is becoming (gasp) a mainstream phenomenon, using one of the less-common licenses or coming up with one of your own works against you more often than not.

In one of the discussions I was having at the Red Hat Summit, I mentioned that picking a well-known license sends a certain signal to the communities that flock around your product. This is not about just the ideals that are reflected in the license itself (and reflected by other products that use the same license), but about what kind of future your product will have in the marketplace if you're using a license that hasn't been given a public shakedown of sorts.

Another way to put it: It's not the programmers that will determine what open source licenses are the best -- it's the software consumers. They'll be the ones narrowing down the forest of licensing to a few well-pruned and -maintained trees. The better for us all not to get lost amongst them.