A License for the Participation Age

UPDATE: Presentation from OSBC now available here.


As I mentioned
earlier in the week, I delivered one of the keynote speeches at the Open Source Business Conference on Tuesday. I’ll provide a link to the presentation as soon as it’s available. The premise of the speech was that all traditional software will ultimately go to free – not because it’s lessening in value, but because an open network is eliminating the price of distribution as a barrier to entry or opportunity. Free and simple access implies a far freer market, in all senses of the word.


Since the speech, I’ve been deluged with input from around the world. The messages generally fall into one of a few areas. First, overwhelming support for Sun’s commitment to free and open source software and the Participation Age; second, questions from those wanting to compare Sun’s CDDL license with the Mozilla and GPL licenses; and third, sharp (frankly, disturbing) rebuke from those that believe the GPL should be the only software license allowed (and that dissenters should be pilloried).


So I thought I’d provide some clarifying thoughts on the evolution of Sun’s CDDL, and our primary motivations. (As a preface, I’d encourage anyone with the interest to read the license. We designed it to be readable by non-lawyers, to do away with the legalese and opacity that normally surrounds software licenses.)


To date, the evolution of a considerable volume of free software has occurred without much discussion around the differing rights and obligations of the licenses (and licensees) involved. As more of the world participates in an open network, more, and more valuable IP is being created – across the globe. Which means the licenses under which IP is distributed are only increasing in importance.


With that in mind, Sun worked hard, with a global community of contributors, to build a stable license for the contribution and evolution of not only Sun’s intellectual property, but all intellectual property, to the F/OSS world. At its heart are a few assumptions.


First, we assume all developers (whether nations, universities, manufacturers or software developers) want choice: a developer using OpenSolaris under the CDDL can choose to weave their own IP into an OpenSolaris or derivative distribution without any obligation to deliver their privately developed intellectual property back to Sun or their competitors. Licensees can stand on our shoulders, build derivative products based on OpenSolaris, without our hands in their pockets or business plans.


What does this mean practically? Under the CDDL, you are free to choose what to reveal, what to withhold, and how to price your products. The CDDL encourages self-determination by giving developers the basic building blocks of the entire OpenSolaris operating system without any obligation to disgorge their private property or predetermine its price. You can withhold from Sun, from the OpenSolaris community, from the world, anything you build. Or you can choose to share. It’s entirely your call.


Unlike the GPL, this choice permits participants to take control of their future – to build upon the assets created by Sun and others without any future obligation. The rigidity of the GPL is what renders it incompatible with the CDDL and the Mozilla Public License – both the CDDL and MPL gladly accept the intermingling of any other source code (including GPL). And why didn’t we use the MPL? For the most part, we did – we simply removed those portions that conveyed to the Mozilla Foundation the ability to revoke the license, and force any disputes to be heard in Santa Clara, California (see Section 11., which obviously doesn’t work for a global market).


A second assumption was that Sun’s considerable patent portfolio has enormous defensive value for the future of free and open source software – and rather than being silent on whether patents are good or bad (my answer, it depends), CDDL licensees simply inherit the full protection of Sun’s portfolio. They gain that benefit through a blanket patent license, covering every software patent Sun has issued. We didn’t pick an arbitrary subset of our patents to generate press. Instead, we granted a license to the entirety of our software portfolio. We attempted to encourage participation. (Separately, do I think software patents need reform? Yes. But in the interim, we put our money, and our patents, where our mouths are – and saved the community from having to sacrifice their future to support our views.)


Finally, we explicitly designed the CDDL to be a license companies and individuals could reuse. We worked hard to architect a license that wasn’t just good for Sun, but was good for any entity – whether commercial or governmental – seeking to accelerate participation, without foisting our or their social or economic models on potential recipients. The CDDL is a reusable license large companies and IP holders can use to make contributions to small companies and nations, conveying the protection from multi-billion dollar patent portfolios without dictating business terms. The license preserves the rights of a licensee to run their economy and business as they see fit – without colonialistic interference or obligation.


Does this mean we don’t believe in the GPL? Absolutely Not. We’re one of the most prolific contributors of code under a GPL license (remember, we delivered Project Looking Glass and OpenOffice under it). But a license governing the development of a productivity application used to create documents deserves fundamentally different scrutiny than a license for infrastructure to be integrated into nascent industries or economies. And understanding the difference is crucial to preserving choice and opportunity. Just as there’s no one desktop for all the world to use, there is no one operating system – and critically, there’s no one license for all open source software.


Do I think there’s hypocrisy on the part of large US companies encouraging usage of the GPL as a license in the developing world? Absent education and awareness related to the risks of unintentionally incorporating GPL code, yes I think it’s hypocritical. Who are the largest economic beneficiaries of the GPL to date? No one disputes it, dominantly American companies.


But we all benefit from a network economy in which all nations and business can participate on an equal footing. From Sun’s inception, we’ve always believed a rising tide lifts all boats. Just as it did with TCP/IP (the basic building block of network computing). And if there’s a lesson in that history, it’s that choice and competition matter. In technologies, licenses and most of all – to my friends on the extremes of the GPL community – the free exchange of ideas.

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