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The license wars are over

Licensing has dropped way down the list of hot-button issues relevant to open-source software. The best evidence of this is what's happening around cloud computing.

If the license wars aren't over, they've certainly muted.

The adoption of the new version of the General Public License, used by Linux and many other open-source projects, was a long, loud, and contentious process. But after all the sturm und drang, it's not clear to me what real impact GPL 3 will have.

Depending on whom you ask, clauses concerning ideological sticking points such as digital rights management were either narrowed in scope or . And it seems entirely possible that Linux, perhaps the best-known open-source project licensed under the GPL, may never move to the new license version.

More broadly, I just don't feel that there's a whole lot of interest, much less passion, out there in the various open-source communities for fighting license battles. That's not to say that everyone agrees that there is one perfect approach to licensing. Not all all! But there is, for the most part, a pragmatic understanding and a realization that the license for a given open-source project has to match up with its governance, collaboration, and even business model. It's just one piece of the puzzle.

In a similar vein, there are just so many accumulated examples of different approaches that have succeeded. Yes, Linux is successful, and it uses GPL 2. But the very popular Apache Web server uses a much more permissive license (in the sense that enhancements don't need to be contributed back to the commons). The Firefox Web browser uses a license that's somewhere in between.

We've also accumulated a lot of evidence that open source is simply a pretty effective development model that can bring a lot of benefits to those who use it. As a result, there's less of a sense that open source needs protection through a restrictive license.

None of this is to say that lawyers and license geeks don't sometimes get into squabbles over how various licenses interact, and so forth. But, in the grand scheme of things, these are micro issues, not macro ones.

I think the best evidence for the winding down of the license wars comes from what's happening around cloud computing, which I define generally as software and infrastructure accessed in the network.

As I've written about previously, the provisions in the GPL, and many other open-source licenses requiring that modifications and enhancements to source code be contributed back to the public, often don't apply in a cloud-computing world. That's because accessing software in the form of a service over the network isn't "distribution," the event that triggers the requirement to make source code available.

Some view this state of affairs as a loophole, one that a variant on the GPL 3--the Affero GPL (AGPL)--explicitly plugs by expanding the definition of distribution to encompass the delivery of services over the network. The AGPL effectively remaps the rules from the original Unix-like environment in which the GPL was born into a network computing one.

What's striking to me is how few people seem to really care about the AGPL and the supposed problem it's trying to solve. Yes, there are the zealots who go apoplectic at the thought of open source being used for profit-making purposes. And there's a fair bit of discussion about how to best protect portability, privacy, and so forth in a cloud-computing world.

There's also no small degree of what might be best called social or community pressure on large cloud vendors such as Google to make meaningful contributions to open-source projects. But forcing all this through licenses? Not so much.