Licenses are Not the Hard Part

Article Source FOSSBazaar
December 8, 2009, 4:06 am

This week, I will have the opportunity to meet in-person with many others who have focused attention on legal aspects of FOSS. The European OpenSource & Free Software Law Event will be held in Brussels on December 9, 2009 ( 

My presentation at that event is titled “Current trends in the Hardware sector: HP Experience”. In looking back over the more than 15 years that HP has been involved in FOSS, I conclude that, what has changed is that licenses are no longer the hard part.

Initially, Hewlett-Packard Company’s involvement with FOSS was primarily related to certain aspects of its hardware business. Since then, both the company’s business and the use of FOSS within the company have expanded significantly. While FOSS involvement first took root in enterprise computing, it now plays more diverse roles stretching across the breadth of HP’s businesses: it is highly visible (such as an operating system complement to HP’s computers) and invisible (such as being embedded in storage devices and printers); it is incorporated into HP software products; it is used in HP’s internal infrastructure and in solutions that HP develops for individual customers. In addition to use of FOSS, HP has contributed to many projects and has initiated over 100 FOSS projects.

The 1990s was a time for puzzlement over the GPL and a time to come to grips with the unconventional nature of the GPL and other, simpler FOSS licenses. At that time, HP’s interaction with FOSS was isolated, and thus it was addressed on an ad hoc basis. The years 2000-2001 could be seen as a turning point: HP’s involvement with FOSS began growing significantly; in 2001 HP’s Open Source Review Board (OSRB) was formed. In retrospect, the formation of the OSRB was an early sign of the trend away from the legal issues being the hard part and toward recognition that the practical issues were beginning to require a greater focus of attention.¬†

In years that would follow that inflection point, practical issues would continue to get growing attention, including: enhancements to the open source review process, employee training programs, development of tools to support that process, and development of tools to extract license information from software, external advocacy to try to reduce the proliferation of different open source licenses. In recent years, HP has sought to address these practical issues in more collaborative ways, including founding this forum for collaboration at and creating and maintaining shared tools for license analysis of open source software at

Looking back, I now see that, in contrast to the situation of a decade ago, licenses are not the hard part. An understanding of the legal interpretation of FOSS licenses is, of course, important. However, experience with licenses is now such that legal analysis is a small part of what requires attention and resources.

Even analysis of the GNU General Public License (GPL) is not the hard part. My actual experience with that license has been that the kinds of issues that have engaged (and entertained) lawyers (such as myself) through innumerable hours of legal discourse represent a small fraction of actual cases. In the main volume of GPL-related activity, attention is on the basics–like actually making the GPL-licensed source code available and otherwise getting the details right.¬†

So, what has proven to be more difficult than I would have anticipated? It is keeping track of everything that needs attention and taking all of the steps that need to be taken. It is a challenge of volume. Individually, the requirements of FOSS licenses are quite minimal. But, when multiplied hundreds or thousands of times, it is necessary to be organized in order to keep on top of the details. In addition, in the early days, interaction with FOSS was limited to a few focused individuals. Now, there are many people who have some connection with FOSS. A large number of people need to attend to their (possibly tiny) piece of the responsibility.

Dealing with practical considerations is a substantial challenge. Legal analysis of FOSS licenses is not the hard part.