For Approval: Generic Attribution Provision

Michael Tiemann tiemann at
Wed Nov 29 15:42:04 UTC 2006


I'd like to echo Nick's appreciation for submitting your license for
discussion on this list.  I welcome your showing of good faith.  I also
think you have done a great credit to your own efforts by presenting
your position in such detail.


I find myself agreeing almost completely with everything you have said
in response--both with respect to the substance and tone.  Thanks for
your contribution!  I especially like your edited generic attribution

Rather than quote the whole response and just at +1s everywhere, I'd
like to focus on what I consider to be the key issue at hand:

On Wed, 2006-11-29 at 00:18 -0800, Nicholas Goodman wrote:

> Ross Mayfield wrote:
> > [...] For example,
> > the incorporation of application programs anonymously into
> > distributions by large companies could destroy the market for open
> > source application software.

> Again: consider using a copyleft license if you want to prevent this.
> This force you claim can destroy the market can be mitigated by a
> license which makes it difficult, if not impossible to embed.  Why
> does GPL not meet this need? 

I believe that the principal driving force of this discussion is the
assumption that without some sort of control point over the use of the
software, the change from software-as-application (which the GPL was
designed to address) to software-as-service invalidates the beneficial
protections of free and open source licenses and leads to the calamity
long claimed by proprietary software proponents, namely a ruined
business and lack of incentive to invest in innovation.

As a person who looked at the GPL /before/ there were any companies
commercializing GPL software (and certainly before companies like Red
Hat were reporting ~ $100M/quarter in revenues derived predominantly
from GPL-licensed software) I can say that I do not see any difference
at all between software-as-an-application in 1989 and software-as-a-
service in 2006.  Let me explain...

In 1989 there was no Linux OS and BSD remained entangled in AT&T's
claims about Unix.  (Those claims would later become the basis of a
lawsuit that was ultimately dismissed, but would sufficiently handicap
BSD that Linux could become the preferred kernel for free and open
source software developers.)  There were GNU compilers and I had become
quite proficient at porting and enhancing those compilers, so I co-
founded Cygnus in order to commercialize the potential I saw around that

It turned out that our major customers were not large IT shops with
1000s of developers writing applications who would in turn create large
secondary markets based on servicing their software for other users, but
rather vendors of embedded systems who did everything in their power to
limit their customers' exposure to software itself.  These customers
created video game consoles (SONY, SEGA, Nintendo), network switches and
routers (Cisco, Nortel, Alcatel, Lucent, etc), control software for
terrestrial and extra-terrestrial satellites (pick your favorite US
Gov't contractor and/or NASA lab), etc.  The embedding of software in
these devices, coupled with the creation of the LGPL (which was
specifically designed to disentangle embedded software developers from
the make-a-distribution-share-the-source requirement of the GPL) gave us
*zero* leverage over the primary revenue generation mechanism of our
customer base.  Yet Cygnus grew, self-funded, to more than 100 people
(the great majority of which were top-class developers) and ultimately
sold to Red Hat for a then-significant amount of stock.  (When the VCs
invested we ballooned to nearly 200 people, many of whom were, to my
shock and chagrin, hired to develop a proprietary layer of software that
lay on top of the GNU tools.)

Prior to the VC investment there was no precedent we could use to
rationalize how "our situation was different, hence we needed to
maintain a control point".  We were the first, and so our choice was
framed in very simple terms: we're either a free software company or
we're not a free software company.  And every time we visited that
question over the years (until the founders sold stock to the VCs), we
always, always, always, settled on remaining a free software company.
(To Red Hat's credit, upon acquiring Cygnus, the first thing they did
was to jettison all the proprietary stuff the VC investment had brought
under our roof.)

Now somehow the argument is being advanced that because somebody else
can grab Software X, run it on their own hardware and offer it as a
service, this is somehow different than being able to download a
compiler from the net, build a new cellphone, and sell it by the
millions without payment to the developers who created such a fantastic
toolkit.  I don't see it.  I do know that at Cygnus we were always open
to questioning why the heck we committed such talented people to such a
crazy business plan.  And I can say that most of the new managers we
hire at Red Hat go through a process of "but if we could just restrict
this one part of product Z..." before they fully grok the open source
thing.  So I understand the enormous pressure to accept a
rationalization about one should or should not conduct their own
business.  And I lived through the experience of working with VCs
who /claimed/ to understand open source before embarking on a decidedly
non-open source strategy.  But through it all I don't need the need or
the benefit to confound proprietary control and open source licensing or
to claim that open source licensing is now irrelevant because ASPs can
offer software as a service.

Here's the nature of the game as I see it:

Company A develops a hosted application B and offers it under license C.

If license C is truly an open source license, then hosting provider D
can freely download it, run it, and encourage customers to use their
service.  Hosting provider E (which could be a business unit of B) can
also do the same, differentiating themselves by offering a lower price,
better service, more features, or whatever.  Customers exercise their
choice, and either, both, or neither D and E are successful.

If license C contains onerous conditions that disadvantage the technical
function of the freely downloaded B as compared with a commercially
acquired B, then C is not open source.  That it may expand the
competitive differences between D and E is not relevant to the question
of whether C is open source or not.  Those competitive differences may
or may not justify whether open source is a better or worse strategy for
A, the application B, or the providers D and E, but it has no bearing on
the is-ness of whether C is open source or not.

For Red Hat, this is not a theoretical question: Oracle has announced
that it now offers Red Hat's bits stripped of Red Hat's marks for half
price with better service.  The GPL allows this and Red Hat is firm in
its belief that there's value beyond the zero cost of the bits that
cannot be copied.  In Red Hat's case, the operative aspect of
attribution is not that it be preserved, but that it not be
misrepresented, which OSD #4 covers.

I think it is very interesting to consider whether and how attribution
should be preserved, but as a means to protect the integrity of
authorship, not as a mechanism to exert a proprietary control point that
the open source model and philosophy forbids.


More information about the License-discuss mailing list