August 15, 2001

Author of Open Source license comparison invites comments

Author: JT Smith

- by Tina Gasperson -
Bryce Wilcox-O'Hearn, aka Zooko, has put together a simple chart that in just a few lines displays the characteristics of each of the most popular Open Source licenses. The table, which is currently in version 0.8.3, makes it easy to see in a glance how the licenses compare to one another.He posted the news to the license-discuss mailing list, which has more than its share of lawyers. Everyone knows lawyers don't like simplicity, so someone was bound to jump on Wilcox-O-Hearn's license reference and trample it a bit. "Oh my! I most definitely do not want to discourage you, and the chart is not
a bad idea, but your commentary is written as if you ARE dispensing legal
advice. You use phrases like 'a court might decide that' and 'it has no
legal effect' too frequently," wrote a list member with the letters J.D., L.L.M, after his name.

Wilcox-O'Hearn then added this comment to the table: "Apparently the only way to be safe against the accusation of having given "legal advice" is
to write with such ambiguity and obfuscation that nobody can learn anything from what you've written. Presumably this culture of fear increases the
demand for lawyers' services. I value speaking plainly, and I feel that plain discussion of software licenses is much needed. In particular, this document
would be useless if all specifics were removed in favor of cautious generalities. Therefore, I simply reiterate that I am not a lawyer and that I am not
acting as one in describing my understanding of the law in simple terms."

Legalese aside, most of the responses to the chart were positive, with constructive suggestions for improvement. And the reference seems to be the only one available. A couple of years ago, there was an Ask Slashdot query posted looking for just such a comparison, and while a heated debate ensued about the merits of the BSD license vs. the GPL, no one offered a direct answer to the question.

Wilcox-O'Hearn is a hacker for Mojo Nation, a "peer-driven content distribution technology." His personal web log is located at

He's looking for more comments and suggestion on the Quick Reference for Choosing a Free Software License and says he will release new, improved versions as those comments come in. You can email him at or post your criticisms in the discussion forum below.


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