OSI and License Proliferation

License proliferation has been a topic for discussion for quite a while now in the FOSS community and many would like to see the Open Source Initiative (OSI) fix this problem for good. In a license proliferation report, the OSI lists three problems that people generally see with license proliferation:

  1. Too many different licenses makes it difficult for licensors to choose: it’s difficult to choose a good license for a project because there are so many.
  2. Some licenses do not play well together: some open source licenses do not inter-operate well with other open source licenses, making it hard to incorporate code from other projects.
  3. Too many licenses makes it difficult to understand what you are agreeing to in a multi-license distribution: since a FOSS application typically contains code with different licenses and people use many applications which each contain one or several licenses, it’s difficult to see what your obligations are.

License proliferation is a hard problem because nobody wants to give up their favourite license and because it can be extremely difficult to relicense a piece of code when there are multiple copyright holders, as is the case in the majority of community projects.

It’s a particularly hard problem for the OSI because of two conflicting interests. One the one hand, the OSI approves licenses as open source based on the Open Source Definition (OSD). Therefore, it seems natural that a license that fulfils the OSD should be approved as open source. On the other hand, because of the problems of license proliferation, it’s beneficial to keep the number of open source approved licenses low.

At the OSI meeting in Portland a few weeks ago, the Board decided to tackle this problem again and split licenses into two tiers. The specific wording has not been finalized yet, but “recommended” and “compliant” have been suggested. This would make it clear which open source licenses are “merely” OSD compliant whereas a limited number are recommended for use in projects.

The discussion about the two tiers has just started, so there are no results yet. But it’s definitely an important discussion that needs to take place.

(Originally published on FOSSBazaar)