Tom Callaway rants about licensing…justifiably so!

Tom Callaway is the Fedora Engineering Manager, at Red Hat, and he’s one of the key people keeping watch over the many and sundry licensing issues that crop up when thousands of software packages come together to make a Linux distribution. Love them or hate them, Tom was and is one of the key architects of Fedora’s legal policies.

And now he’s mad.

In his blog today, Tom writes about a legal problem he’s encountered with a package that dates back to 1985. For those keeping track, 1985 is before 1989, the date I co-founded Cygnus Support, the first company to explicitly attempt to provide commercial support for free software. Since that idea seemed to advanced back in 1989, it’s probably not surprising that a license written in 1985 that intended to make its source code and derived products free to the world would attempt to make this point all the more clear by prohibiting distribution “for a profit”. Here are the terms (as reported by Tom):

* Copyright (c) 1985 Lachman Associates, Inc..
* This software was written by Mark Brukhartz at Lachman Associates,
* Inc.. It may be distributed within the following restrictions:
* (1) It may not be sold at a profit.
* (2) This credit and notice must remain intact.
* This software may be distributed with other software by a commercial
* vendor, provided that it is included at no additional charge.”

Except that there is no incompatibility between the concept of making source code freely available and making a profit from services around such software, including the service of sale and distribution. Cygnus proved this by being consistently profitable always in its core business. And yet 20 years later, we still find mainstream analysts bleating about the idea that open source software and profits are somehow incompatible, that any profits attributed to open source activities are really the result of something else. But I’m not going to go on that rant, because I’m writing about Tom’s rant.

Tom’s problem is that every legal problem with every license in supposedly free/open source software is a problem that is multiplied by the thousands of packages in the Fedora distribution, and by the thousands times the thousands when considering possible license interactions as these packages themselves become new works in new applications, configurations, and distributions. His rant is instructive because it shows that licensing matters, and that good licensing matters a lot.

Unfortunately, in 1985 the legal framework of the GPL was in its nascent state and the Open Source Initiative did not exist. I still prefer the GPL as my own personal favorite license-it protects my own personal interests the best-but people like choice, and the Open Source Initiative’s efforts to encourage companies to actively develop licenses that they could love and that their users could love has created the kind of choice that helped make Open Source a mainstream software concept. (Some who favor limits to license proliferation think we did too good a job. But that, too, is a topic for another rant.)

Tom sees it as almost hopeless to think that the software and software license about which he rants will every be rectified, in part because the software’s chain of title goes through multiple forks and multiple companies that went through bankruptcy. He presumes that it is at least as difficult to determine the rightful owner as it would be to convince said owner to change the terms from a non-approved license to an OSI approved license. And he’s probably right. But I have an alternative suggestion: rather than focus on this one obscure piece of software, let me propose a New Year’s resolution to all software-holding companies: commit to re-license any quasi-open source software you own under a full-fledged OSI-approved license in 2009. I believe that this will dramatically reduce all manner of legal costs and confusions, not just for Tom, but for the open source (and now enterprise software) communities as well.