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The license proliferation canard

Open-source license proliferation is light on reality and long on myth.

Canard: a deliberately misleading fabrication.

That's the word I thought of when I read this article on how open-source license proliferation threatens adoption of open source in the enterprise. I stopped thinking of license proliferation as a serious threat to open source back in 2004 when the Open Source Initiative last beat this drum. Since then it has been very clear that license proliferation is a minor threat at best.

The analyst Saugatuck disagrees:

"Given that one of the top four reasons given by user executives (especially SMEs) for adopting Open Source software is the 'Ability to adapt and refine source code,' the likelihood of user enterprises violating or impinging upon multiple license terms increases.

Most IT directors and CIOs, as well as executives at vendor companies, think of open source licensing as GPL, BSD and perhaps one or two others, but Saugatuck has found there are more than 1,000 types of open source licences. "That number is likely to increase - as are the complexities of the licences themselves, and the issues regarding licence compliance."

I'm glad Saugatuck spent its time finding those 1,000 open-source license types, because I don't think any customer or developer in existence has ever managed to find all of those. And not a single one of them can be bothered to search for them. In fact, I'd guess that most developers resort to an arsenal of fewer than 10 different licenses, and almost always fewer than five (Apache, BSD, L/GPL, Artistic, and MPL).

This is the reality of open-source software licensing: there are many from which to choose, but by far the majority of users and developers choose one of a small handful of licenses. The GPL, alone, accounts for over 70% of all projects on Sourceforge.

If would-be customers of open source are confused by their open-source licensing options, they aren't showing it with their pocketbooks or free use. Nor should they be: enterprises that are in the business of consuming (and not distributing) software don't have to worry about the license terms at all (or, at least, not very much): open-source licensing is a one-way street for them. They have the right to use, modify, and enjoy the software, and need not contribute anything back or worry about how License X interacts with License Y. It's a non-issue.

So, 1,000 choices, but only five or so that anyone routinely cares about. The reality of license proliferation is much less sexy than the myth.