Red Hat, Joyent, and others break down licensing barriers

What do JBoss, Node.js and Tesla Motors have in common? They all want you to innovate without asking first!

Tech companies have been telling an important story with their actions over the last few weeks. What do these stories have in common?

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With a CLA no longer required for contributions to Node.js, Joyent has given the community around the popular JavaScript server framework a reason to celebrate. In a blog post Joyent CTO Bryan Cantrill said:

Doing this lowers the barrier to entry for Node.js contributors thereby broadening the contributor base. It also brings Node.js in line with other projects that Joyent leads and (not unimportantly!) assures that we ourselves are not falling into corporate open source anti-patterns!

Given the project uses an MIT license, this means there are no barriers at all to participation in the Node.js community (unless the lack of a patent-peace in the chosen license worries you -- it might).

Open source is an environment where no permission is required to use the source code; the flexibility to do as you wish is already provided. The open source license creates this permissionless environment, and developers are able to gather around a source code commons to meet their individual needs without having to seek approval from anywhere. Requiring a CLA to contribute immediately obstructs this goal.

A CLA is a legal agreement that a community member needs to sign before their contributions will be accepted by certain open source projects. Almost all CLAs give expansive rights to the contributor's copyrights to the recipient of the agreement; most grant patent rights as well. As a consequence, contributors from educational and commercial organizations will have to gain management and legal approval before proceeding.

CLAs add friction to community, reducing the scope of who will join in and delaying the start of contribution for those who do choose to. CLAs that aggregate copyright are especially destructive to community as they cause inequalities of power that disrupt trust, but inserting any step that requires approval from risk-averse legal advisers is bound to clog up the wheels of progress. Indeed, some experts believe CLAs should always be avoided. I agree, because:

  1. First-time contributors get bogged down in bureaucracy.
  2. Corporate engagement requires specific review of the CLA, not just class review of a well-known open source license.
  3. When the beneficiary of the aggregation is a for-profit, competitors stay away, limiting the diversity and resulting strength of the community.

Tesla's move may not seem related, but it's in the same category. Removing CLAs means contributors can innovate without needing to seek permission first; Tesla's patent pledge allows innovation in their industry without the need to negotiate with Tesla first. Both create room for "permissionless innovation."

It's easier to innovate if you don't have to ask for permission first. The open source way is to give permission in advance so that innovators can make things better freely. OSI-approved licenses do that for software; Creative Commons licenses do it for music, writing, and other creative works. This "permissionless" approach opens up collaboration, contribution, and innovation.

It works. Open source software is now a part of almost everything we all do every day with every computer and device, all because people could be creative without seeking permission first. This is why patents harm innovation in the technology industry. Instead of spending time innovating, too many people have to spend time seeking permission from rights-holders and paying for the privilege.

Elon Musk is following those examples and implementing the same principle for electric vehicles. By doing so, he's likely to grow his market to the benefit of all, including his company. It's a smart move that recognizes the power of the connected, meshed society. When we're all peers, no one tolerates articificial barriers requiring permission in advance from others. Red Hat, Joyent, and Tesla Motors are all taking the path to permissionless innovation, and I'm sure they will reap the benefits.

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