Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing
Guide to Navigating Licensing Issues in Existing & New Software
Publisher: O'Reilly Media
Final Release Date: August 2004
Pages: 208

If you've held back from developing open source or free software projects because you don't understand the implications of the various licenses, you're not alone. Many developers believe in releasing their software freely, but have hesitated to do so because they're concerned about losing control over their software. Licensing issues are complicated, and both the facts and fallacies you hear word-of-mouth can add to the confusion.Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing helps you make sense of the different options available to you. This concise guide focuses on annotated licenses, offering an in-depth explanation of how they compare and interoperate, and how license choices affect project possibilities. Written in clear language that you don't have to be a lawyer to understand, the book answers such questions as: What rights am I giving up? How will my use of OS/FS licensing affect future users or future developers? Does a particular use of this software--such as combining it with proprietary software--leave me vulnerable to lawsuits?Following a quick look at copyright law, contracts, and the definition of "open source," the book tackles the spectrum of licensing, including:

  • The MIT (or X), BSD, Apache and Academic Free licenses
  • The GPL, LGPL, and Mozilla licenses
  • The QT, Artistic, and Creative Commons licenses
  • Classic Proprietary licenses
  • Sun Community Source license and Microsoft Shared Source project
The book wraps up with a look at the legal effects--both positive and negative--of open source/free software licensing.Licensing is a major part of what open source and free software are all about, but it's still one of the most complicated areas of law. Even the very simple licenses are tricky. Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing bridges the gap between the open source vision and the practical implications of its legal underpinnings. If open source and free software licenses interest you, this book will help you understand them. If you're an open source/free software developer, this book is an absolute necessity.
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(3 of 3 customers found this review helpful)


Invaluable reference for IP attorneys counseling software developers

By Anonymous

from Undisclosed

Comments about oreilly Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing:

This book has been an invaluable tool for me counseling clients on open source issues for the past 2+ years (my copy is laden with post-it flags and hand-written notes). Just having all the major software open source licenses together in one place is well worth it -- the great analysis is icing on the cake.

It would be great to see an update of this book, given the increasing adoption and use of open source, and the increasing scrutiny it is receiving in the mergers/acquisitions and financing contexts.

(2 of 3 customers found this review helpful)


A Worthwhile Introduction to Open Source Licensing

By Barry Hawkins

from Undisclosed

Comments about oreilly Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing:

Understanding Open Source & Free Software Licensing

Andrew M. St. Laurent


When sharing with others that I was reviewing an O'Reilly book through their User Group & Professional Association Program, the first question was always the same: "What book are you reviewing?" After saying the title was "Understanding Open Source & Free Software Licensing", responses ranged from "What's that?" to "Well, you won't have any trouble sleeping!" One might think that this list of people included relatives and coworkers who were not attuned to the open source community and its issues. On the contrary, the responses came from those within my circle of acquaintances that include software developers, system administrators, and even an intellectual property lawyer. Licensing is not exactly the sort of topic where people slide forward in their seats and ask to be told more. Such is the appeal of software licensing; however, the importance of understanding licensing, particularly within the context of open source development, cannot be overstated.

Those familiar with the O'Reilly product offerings have no doubt seen or purchased one or more their Pocket Reference series (http://pocketrefs.oreilly.com/). They are not comprehensive references, but rather convenient guides for a specific topic to provide the sort of information one is not likely to have committed to memory, particularly as the trend of having cross-disciplined technologists continues. This book could be considered the analog of pocket guides for open source and free software licensing. Open source licenses and their legal interpretation are subject matter that easily warrant a "pocket reference" that is a full-sized book of nearly 200 pages.

Frankly, reading through a software license and maintaining a reasonable level of comprehension is a rather tough job. The author manages to make the task far more bearable and fruitful at the same time; a difficult balance to strike. The pace of the annotation works well to break up the various licenses (twelve in total) into bite-sized chunks. Chapters 2 and 3, which address the Apache/BSD/MIT family of licenses and the GPL/LGPL/MPL family of licenses respectively, each end with a section titled "Application and Philosophy" that serves as a sort of reward for making it through the license and establishes a touchstone to summarize and provide meaningful context for what has been covered.

The annotations of the different licenses are a great introduction, but the book should not be considered as a complete reference for open source licensing issues. The book seems to affirm this at points where the author indicates that particular topics fall outside the book's scope, even to the point of recommending experienced legal counsel for certain issues. It also has a wonderful collection of footnotes and reference to other resources to allow the reader to flesh out topics of interest beyond the focus of this work.

One subtlety of the book that should not be missed is how the history of the open source movement is woven throughout the book to provide the context in which these licenses came into being and were modified to accommodate the vibrant, emerging world of open development models. The book's last two chapters bring that context to the foreground, fully developing the consequence of the licenses in daily development activity. It is far too easy to view these licenses and as mere legal documents that exist in and of themselves; the author reminds us that these licenses are the manifestations of a spirit of selfless contribution and work toward social good made possible by the considerable sacrifice of quite gifted individuals. For those passionate about the open source and free software movements, the section of chapter 7 titled "Models of Open Source and Free Software Development" is a poignant and stirring encapsulation of the first years of the GNU and Linux projects and the work that brought them into being. The cliche rings true; we do indeed "stand on the shoulders of giants."

The number of editorial errors involving misspelled and/or missing words seemed relatively high; this is a trend that seems to have developed in technical books in recent years, to a point that the technical community has come to accept it as some sort of side effect of the rapid pace with which books must be produced in order to keep pace with the rate of change. Given that this is an issue present in other works as well as this one, it should not particularly count as a mark against the work, but rather serve to underscore an issue publishers should consider improving.

"Understanding Open Source & Free Software Licensing" is a book which strikes a balance between completeness of subject matter coverage and manageability of size. Given the amount of attention the average open source user or developer has given to licensing, reading this book would be a considerable improvement. This book is recommended for a couple of audiences. First, it serves as a great foundation for developers either active in or contemplating participation in open source development. Searching most any open source mailing list for the term "license" can usually turn up some of its hottest flame wars. If most developers had this introductory level of understanding about the main open source licenses, hundreds of message threads arguing about licensing could be avoided.

A second audience for this book is the project manager and/or CTO in most corporate IT shops. Most corporate projects are making use of numerous open source libraries and frameworks. This is particularly true with J2EE, but also with .Net as a number of .Net counterparts to popular J2EE resources arise, e.g. NAnt, NUnit, etc. This book can dispel unnecessary apprehension regarding the use of these libraries that often arises from fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) propagated in much of the mainstream technology media. It can also equip managers to make informed decisions about team members' potential contributions to open source projects and the potential legal implications.

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