HP exec calls for less open-source licences

The open-source community needs fewer licences and the large number of software licences used to release open-source code is...

The open-source community needs fewer licences and the large number of software licences used to release open-source code is becoming a significant issue for developers and users, said a senior Hewlett-Packard executive at the Linuxworld Conference & Expo.

"A lot of people don't realise that today there are dozens and dozens of open-source licences," said Martin Fink, HP's vice-president of Linux. "The number has reached 52 open-source licences and will likely be 55 by the end of the week."

Open-source licences are approved by the non-profit Open Source Initiative (OSI), which has certified software licences from organisations as diverse as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Apple Computer and Nokia since it was founded in 1998.

But according to Fink, there are already too many such licences. "There really is no value, and there is only confusion in having that many licences," he said.

To date, HP has not seen the need to create a new licence for its own contributions, choosing instead to release its software under existing open-source licences, Fink said.

"I approve on average three to five open-source projects and contributions every single week," he said. "If I have never had to create a new licence, I have a really hard time understanding why you think you do."

Fink called on open-source developers in the LinuxWorld audience to try and reduce the number of software licences.

"Lets look for ways to start consolidating the existing set of licenses so that we remove the confusion that having that many licences has on our industry," he said.

The issue has attracted the attention of the OSI board and has, at least, the potential to become serious, said Eric Raymond president of OSI. There is a "strong chance" that the organisation will be more restrictive in the number of licences it certifies, although it has not put such a policy in place, he said.

The majority of OSI-certified licences are used in a very small number of works, Raymond said. "All but a dozen of these are vanity licenses, usually uttered by a corporate legal department with too much time on its hands, used on exactly one project," he said.

Any confusion brought on by the proliferation of open-source licensing is probably a greater issue for open-source suppliers, who must ensure that the products they sell do not have incompatible licences, but it is also an issue for customers, said Chris Hjelm the chief technology officer with Orbitz, which uses a variety of open-source software in its online travel business.

"If everyone sort of opted out of the licensing game, it would make everyone's life a little easier," Hjelm said.

At least one company, Black Duck Software has been created to simplify the life of customers like Orbitz. Black Duck, sells a product called protexIP which allows IT managers to track their software developers contributions and to help ensure that any open-source software being used or complies with its licensing terms.

Orbitz is currently having its internal code audited by protexIP, said Hjelm. "The promise is that they'll manage this complexity," he said.

Robert McMillan writes for IDG News Service

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