Control vs. influence: Which way for open source?

Organizations ferociously attempting to enforce controls around copyrights may end up alienating both users and developers in the process

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Cause, effect, and open source licenses

The tension between direct and systemic causality lies at the heart of the endless debate between whether BSD-ish (permissive) approaches to open source software licensing are better or worse than GNU-ish (copyleft-based) ones.

The GNU-ish view takes a directly causal view, believing that the freedoms of software users are so important that there should be a direct compulsion on every user to share improvements they make to code. For example, the GNU General Public License (GPL) enforces this outlook by extending the requirement for publication of changes not just to the files directly inherited from an earlier project but to every part of the source corresponding to a distributed binary program. Inherent in this view is a strong desire to defend and enforce the terms of the license.

On the other hand, the BSD-ish view is systemic, believing that any innovative user of the code will want to add their improvements to the commons so that the community will maintain them collectively, freeing the innovator to spend time elsewhere. In this view, proprietary uses of software eventually result in contribution to the commons; to behave otherwise is less effective. For example, the Apache License version 2 places few restrictions on the use of the code it licenses and no requirement that any code must be made public. Inherent in this view is a laissez-faire outlook that claims the whole subject is unimportant; the more vigorous the claim of disinterest, the stronger the view is held.

Both views are actively debated to this day. Ultimately, neither has an exclusive hold on the truth: that both approaches have strengths and weaknesses and that picking between them depends on many contextual inputs. To decide either way, one must consider the overall system being licensed. Ultimately, I believe the middle way -- weak copyleft licensing of the kind epitomized by the Mozilla Public License v2 -- offers the best compromise, signalling that contribution is expected by the community that chose the license while leaving plenty of scope for those wishing to evade that expectation to do so.

The tension between direct-causal and systemic-causal views won't likely end through discussion. There are deeper forces at work than mere logic. As open source -- and the music industry -- face up to the realities of the markets they face, perhaps gradual change will arise. In these complex systems at the heart of the meshed society, trade control for influence. Control can be evaded, but influence delivers results.

This article, "Control vs. influence: Which way for open source?," was originally published at Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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