The Open source legal maze: an open trap?

Libre vs. lawyers and licenses

Five minutes after first looking at open source, I found myself on the phone with a lawyer. When people talk about open source, they use words like “free” and all these other wonderful terms; when I spoke to the lawyer, he described the idiosyncrasies of all these open source legal licenses. That’s when I became familiar with less wonderful words -— medical terms like infectious and viral—that open source licenses often use. For example: The Gnu Public License (GPL) says if you write any software that touches the licensed code, your software immediately becomes open source. That’s called being infectious. Candidly, it does make you feel sick a little bit. This world is supposedly open and free and everyone can use it, but there are these licenses that are fairly restrictive. Free as in "gratis", sure; but free as in "libre"? The most liberal open source package today is Apache. I think it’s most true to form. Everybody can use it, everybody can do what they want with it, and there are no guarantees. This is what I consider true open source. I’m not saying I’m against the license issue per se, because companies have the right to protect themselves, but it can get very complicated. You have to think about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it so it doesn’t become infectious; you need to take extra care so that your software, which you may not have wanted to be open source, doesn’t suddenly become open source, owing to a legal twist or nuance. It’s a problem everywhere that CIOs are battling with. There are all kinds of things that people do as a result of the maze of legal licenses: GPL, GPL v2, CDDL, MPL, LGPL, Apache. People are writing pieces of code to make sure there’s a buffer between the open source and what you might write. So I write another piece of code to not get infected. You have to do all this maneuvering just to not get virally infected. And I’m not convinced the extra code is always a product of sound systems design. Has this happened to you? I’d love to hear your own stories – horrors or happiness.

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