Could Apache keep Google's regulators at bay?

Google has standardized on Apache open-source licensing, which is a great way to placate regulators by demonstrating a lack of control over its code.

Google loves Apache.

Lost in the flutter over Google's hymn to openness is an intriguing factoid on open-source licensing:

Though many of the programs hosted on Google Code are licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL), when Google wants to open-source its software, it turns to the Apache Software License version 2.0.

Why?

Google's Jonathan Rosenberg elucidates:

When we open source our code we use standard, open Apache 2.0 licensing, which means we don't control the code. Others can take our open source code, modify it, close it up and ship it as their own. Android is a classic example of this....

Control. Apache is a signal that a company is prepared to fully remove its hands from a software project's steering wheel. The GNU General Public License (GPL), a more widely used open-source license, tells a different story.

Glyn Moody correctly articulates that "the GNU GPL gives a disproportionate advantage to the company that owns the copyright." Bingo.

In fact, as I wrote back in 2006, the GPL is the closest thing to traditional copyright ever devised in open-source licensing:

Please keep in mind that the supposed paragon of software freedom [GPL] is also the license that most tightly imposes a distinct lack of freedom on downstream users. If you're a capitalist like me, you probably like this fact. But if you're a software developer...?

Google, at the top of its game (and with its profits firmly secured by a very proprietary revenue stream ), doesn't need to constrain its development community with the GPL . Indeed, doing so would be counterproductive, given the persistent privacy concerns that hover over its every action.

Google needs to demonstrate a lack of control. Apache helps it do so.

This shouldn't be underestimated. Microsoft, having lived on the regulator's rack for so long, may be anxious to ensure Google gets to know U.S. and European regulators, too. Apache licensing could help.

Apache licensing is one of the cards played by MySQL co-founder Monty Widenius with European regulators recently: Apache puts original developers and downstream developers on equal footing, so why not keep Oracle from snuffing out MySQL's life by relicensing it under Apache instead of the GPL?

It was a jaundiced card for Widenius to play, but it would be a decent card for Google to play against claims that it's too dominant. (Competition is "just a click (or a fork) away....)

Rosenberg writes that because of Google's open-source licensing, "others can use our software as a base for their own products if we fail to innovate adequately." True. Google is clearly betting on its ability to innovate fast, which is incidentally also the very thing that makes the prospect of seeing its code forked so remote.

Even if competitors are technically and legally capable of taking Google's code and using it to create competing products, the truth is that it's very hard to fork fast-moving code, especially if you're not an active contributor to that code. Google understands this. It's the savviest open-source company around.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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