Google's WebM license could undermine the meaning of 'open source'

Google's adoption of non-OSI-approved license could create a raft of problems for open source users

As Apple and Adobe sparred over the inclusion of Flash in the iPhone OS, supporters of the emerging HTML5 standard -- including Apple, Google, and Microsoft -- touted the H.264 video codec specified in HTML5 as a reason that Flash is unnecessary. But H.264 is proprietary technology that requires a license for use and redistribution, which effectively means Mozilla can't adopt it for the open source Firefox browser. So Google has come up with WebM, an open and royalty-free media format based on the VP8 video codec.

Problem solved? Not exactly. After examining the software license, open source pundits have questioned whether WebM should be classified as open source software. But the larger question is why Google allowed this debate to occur in the first place and what it means for your organization when evaluating an "open source" product.

[ Check out Savio Rodriguez's update on the WebM issue: "Google responds to WebM license backlash." | Keep up on the current open source news and insights with InfoWorld's Technology: Open source newsletter. ]

Google has positioned WebM as an open alternative to the popular H.264 video codec. Browser vendors such as Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera, and of course Google have signaled support for WebM based on its open nature. The royalty-free angle surely helped in this decision. As would be expected of an open source project, Google released the source code to WebM.

Open source in theory or in practice?
But Google did not, however, use an Open Source Initiative (OSI)-approved license for WebM. As such, at least in theory, WebM cannot be considered open source software under the open source definition (OSD). This is imporant, as ComputerWorld UK columnist and OSI board member Simon Phipps wrote:

Many government and business policies around the world point to OSI when defining what is acceptable as "open source." The OSD remains the gold standard and we all have much to lose if it is subverted.

The WebM FAQ explains that Google desired to use a standard BSD or Apache license, but ending up using a BSD-based (rather than standard BSD) license to meet Google's needs:

The Apache license is somewhat similar in effect to this license. The main reason it was not used is that filing patent litigation against someone using the Apache 2 license only terminates patent rights granted under the license. Whoever filed the litigation would still be able to use the software they are suing over and still be in compliance with the license. This [WebM] license, however, terminates all rights when patent litigation is filed. Rather than modify the Apache license to meet our needs, which would probably lead to significant confusion, we went with the simpler approach of a BSD style license plus patent provision.

Bruce Perens decided to submit the WebM license to the OSI for review and approval as he would like to create a derivate work based on it. Google's open source programs manager, Chris DiBona, responded by asking the OSI to delay a review of WebM:

Please hold off on submitting this while we determine certain compatibility issues internally at Google. ... I would also point out that we're uncomfortable with making license proliferation worse and, in the event we do submit it, we will want a couple of changes to how OSI does licenses:

1) We will want a label explicitly deterring the use of the license.
2) We will want the bod (board of directors) list archives open for any discussions of webm. We are not comfortable with OSI being closed.
3) We need to know OSI's current corporate status.

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