Dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories of soft­ware li­cences

OpenSource For You - - FOR U & ME | OVERVIEW -

Soft­ware li­cences can be broadly clas­si­fied into two cat­e­gories. Th­ese are: pro­pri­etary li­cences and the free/ open source li­cences. The for­mer are adopted by soft­ware com­pa­nies or in­di­vid­ual de­vel­op­ers to in­clude one or more re­stric­tions on how the soft­ware is used by a cus­tomer. Pro­pri­etary li­cences can re­strict mod­i­fi­ca­tion, shar­ing, in­spec­tion, re­dis­tri­bu­tion and re­verse en­gi­neer­ing. Some of the popular pro­pri­etary li­cences are sup­ported by or­gan­i­sa­tions and com­pa­nies like The Open Group (Yes! UNIX is closed source!), Mi­crosoft, Adobe Sys­tems, etc. Mi­crosoft Win­dows’ EULA is an ex­am­ple of a pro­pri­etary soft­ware li­cence. To those in the soft­ware free­dom move­ment, pro­pri­etary li­cences are anath­ema. So I am go­ing to dis­cuss what in­ter­ests us more -- the open source soft­ware li­cences. But don’t for­get that hav­ing some li­cence is far bet­ter than no li­cence at all.

Open source soft­ware is widely sup­ported by many en­thu­si­as­tic de­vel­op­ers. One of the rea­sons for such un­tir­ing sup­port is the idea that with each line of code con­trib­uted, we are work­ing to­wards the devel­op­ment of mankind by spread­ing knowl­edge. But are we fight­ing on the right side for the right rea­sons? To an­swer this ques­tion, we need to un­der­stand the dif­fer­ent free/open source li­cences. It is of­ten con­fus­ing when peo­ple talk about free soft­ware, open source soft­ware, free and open source soft­ware, etc. Are they dif­fer­ent or syn­ony­mous with one an­other? The an­swer is that they are all dif­fer­ent. But the dif­fer­ences are very sub­tle and of­ten do not seem to make much sense.

There are many or­gan­i­sa­tions in the open source arena deal­ing with soft­ware li­cences. Two of the ma­jor play­ers are the Free Soft­ware Foun­da­tion (FSF) and the Open Source Ini­tia­tive (OSI). They both re­view free/open source soft­ware li­cences for their legal va­lid­ity and use­ful­ness. If a par­tic­u­lar soft­ware adopts a li­cence ap­proved by the FSF, then it is called free soft­ware. Sim­i­larly, if a soft­ware adopts a li­cence ap­proved by the OSI, it is called open source soft­ware. Most of­ten, li­cences are ap­proved by both the FSF and the OSI, and such soft­ware can be called free and open source soft­ware (FOSS). For ex­am­ple, open source li­cences like the GNU Gen­eral Public Li­cense (GPL), the MIT Li­cense and the PHP Li­cense are ac­cepted by both the FSF and the OSI. So soft­ware that has one of th­ese li­cences can be called FOSS. Artis­tic Li­cense ver­sion 1.0 is ac­cepted by the OSI but not by the FSF. So soft­ware adopt­ing this li­cence is open source soft­ware but not free soft­ware. Sim­i­larly, the orig­i­nal BSD Li­cense is ac­cepted by the FSF but not by the OSI. So soft­ware adopt­ing this li­cence can be called free soft­ware but not open source soft­ware.

So we have now learned to iden­tify free soft­ware and open source soft­ware. But why should there be two ri­val or­gan­i­sa­tions work­ing to­wards achiev­ing more or less the same goals? In my opin­ion, this is the curse as­so­ci­ated with the free/open source ini­tia­tives. You can go to the re­spec­tive web­sites of th­ese two or­gan­i­sa­tions and find ar­ti­cles mildly crit­i­cal of the other ini­tia­tive. The OSI ar­gues that the FSF ap­proach is more philo­soph­i­cal in na­ture rather than be­ing a prac­ti­cal one. The OSI feels that the term ‘free’ is mis­lead­ing and am­bigu­ous. Well, many peo­ple care more about free beer than free speech so OSI scores a point there. But the FSF has its own list of ac­cu­sa­tions against the OSI. The FSF feels that the OSI li­cences are slightly weaker than the FSF li­cences. FSF also ac­cuses the OSI of sup­port­ing com­pa­nies pro­vid­ing soft­ware re­sid­ing on the fringes of free­dom and open­ness. This in­fight­ing can also be gen­er­alised as the main theme of open source soft­ware devel­op­ment.

The story goes like this. Two friends, who are de­vel­op­ing a free/open source project, have a breakup. The next day, one of them forks the project and af­ter a few years there are two soft­ware with dif­fer­ences so minute that you need ad­vanced de­grees to iden­tify them. One such in­stance is the birth of Li­breOf­fice from Open­Office. The lat­ter now has an Apache Li­cense whereas Li­breOf­fice has a Mozilla Public Li­cense v2.0. The rea­son for the split was mostly re­lated to the in­tri­ca­cies of the li­cence used by Or­a­cle, which owned Open­Office at that point in time. The bot­tom line is that both FSF and OSI val­i­date soft­ware li­cences for their po­ten­tial use­ful­ness, and the cri­te­ria for eval­u­a­tion have only mi­nor dif­fer­ences but the ri­valry is in­tense. So, fi­nally, which ini­tia­tive is the bet­ter one? Well, I don’t want to an­swer that ques­tion as it might trig­ger some­thing sim­i­lar to the ‘edi­tor war’.

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