Discussing open source licenses is akin to discussing religion. Everyone has an opinion and some adamantly position the good or bad of one license over another. But alas, although licenses have been discussed over many years, the topic continues to pop up. I would like to inject a few key points of interest to open source licenses.
Does open source exist because of a single open source license?
The answer to that question, in my opinion, is no. Having participated in open source projects and on corporate open source review boards for many years throughout my career, I have seen many open source licenses. A few even contained interesting derivations or stipulations providing some comic relief. Open source engineers are very creative and can be passionate about their topics of interest. Luckily most of the many licenses out there are simply derivatives of the most popular licenses.
OSI (Open Source Initiative) has tracked many licenses and approved some as well, maintaining a list of the nine most widely used and popular. Each license has its unique requirements and benefits from the reciprocity of GPL (GNU General Public License) to the permissive MIT. Each has its strong proponents and opponents. Some feel that without GPL’s compulsion human greed will end open source as we know it. Others feel that freedom is the key to success and such compulsion hinders creative use.
The reality is that the strength of open source is in its diversity, including a diversity of licenses. No single license has been nor will be the pivotal point to open source success. License diversity is very evident from the data gathered by the Black Duck Knowledgebase. A quick view of the top 20 licenses used in open source projects today shows an even spread.
Is it the license that makes a project successful?
In reality the open source license is only a small piece of the puzzle for a successful project. The license does convey the basis for contribution, along the project bylaws, mission, contribution agreements and community code of conduct. To be clear, open source license compliance is a good and necessary thing, but every license model has its “loopholes” and “greed” seekers who will be community leeches. Compelling conformance nor total license freedom are not incentives for contribution and compliance.
True project success comes through those which build upon and distribute the project releases. Distribution is what creates an ecosystem around the technology. An ecosystem is what generates the creative use and resulting innovative ideas. A wide range of uses generates innovation. Innovation generates vitality. Project and community vitality generates market adoption, market momentum and market leaders.
Vitality and momentum incentives contribution and compliance. History has demonstrated several times that the speed of an active community makes it difficult for leaching to be long term success. An active community infers much innovation, growth and maturity. A great example of this is the Linux Kernel. A recent Linux Foundation report shows that “more than 12,000 individuals have contributed to Linux since 2005” and that “more than 1,300 changes are made per week.” Maintaining a “forked” derivative may look like a quick win, but under such continuous change, it is simply an expensive dead end.
The expense to compete against such vitality is one of the most compelling factors that engenders the desire to contribute and it is such market momentum that induces compliance. Success in open source isn't due to the prominence of any single open source license isn’t compelled. It is due to the recognized value generated from active communities that continue to generate innovative ideas and member contributions.
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