The 21st century's best open-source license?

Larry Rosen's Open Software License may well be the perfect license for this century's software, given its provisions for Internet use.

I've been mentioning Larry Rosen's Open Software License (OSL) off and on over the last few weeks.

But today I decided to give OSL a deep dive in light of the failure of General Public License (GPL) version 3 to protect software developers from network distribution of their works and the success of the Common Public Attribution License (CPAL) in protecting these same developers by calling out network distribution.

The OSL works because, like the GPL, it's concerned with contributions, not credit (i.e., attribution). Ultimately, this is what a strong open-source license should provide. It's the best protection of freedom and, let's be frank, revenue.

The OSL is, in my opinion, one of the best licenses for the 21st century. Here's why.

Section 1 of the license gives You ("an individual or a legal entity exercising rights under, and complying with all of the terms of, this License"):

...a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive, sublicensable license, for the duration of the copyright, to do the following:

  1. to reproduce the Original Work in copies, either alone or as part of a collective work;

  2. to translate, adapt, alter, transform, modify, or arrange the Original Work, thereby creating derivative works ("Derivative Works") based upon the Original Work;

  3. to distribute or communicate copies of the Original Work and Derivative Works to the public, with the proviso that copies of Original Work or Derivative Works that You distribute or communicate shall be licensed under this Open Software License;

  4. to perform the Original Work publicly; and

  5. to display the Original Work publicly.

In short, you have the right to distribute the Original Work over the Internet, but you have to contribute/license back all derivative works under the OSL. Brilliant. It is, in my opinion, better for commercial entities than the CPAL (which gets at the same result through its Section 15) because, like the GPL, it covers derivative works at a macro level, rather than the Mozilla Public License's (MPL) micro (read: file) level. It thus provides more protection from skirting the open-source license.

This is particularly true when you consider that CPAL makes no provisions for selective use of code within a larger work. It does as pertains to file-level protection (a la its MPL parentage), but the requirement of attribution would almost certainly not apply to use of a bite-size piece of a larger work. (In other words, I doubt that it would be defensible for SocialText to require attribution on someone who decides to borrow its page rendering code within its larger wiki software. Attribution makes sense when applied to modification of an entire work, but not so much when you get granular.)

Back to the OSL. I like its grant of patent license (and termination of all rights to the code if you launch a patent action against the licensor), restrictions on use of trademarks, and various other things. I especially like its clear definition of "external deployment:"

The term "External Deployment" means the use, distribution, or communication of the Original Work or Derivative Works in any way such that the Original Work or Derivative Works may be used by anyone other than You, whether those works are distributed or communicated to those persons or made available as an application intended for use over a network. As an express condition for the grants of license hereunder, You must treat any External Deployment by You of the Original Work or a Derivative Work as a distribution under section 1(c).

A thing of beauty. This license is short, readily comprehensible, and fits the times. It is effectively the GPL written for potential network use--exactly what I had been hoping GPLv3 would accomplish. The OSL merits strong consideration by anyone thinking about how to ensure the freedom of their code for everyone except would-be competitors (meaning, such competitors are free to use it, but have to play fair with open-source rules, which likely means they'll pass).

Community capitalism at its finest.

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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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