For Approval: ECL 2.0

Brian Behlendorf brian at
Wed May 23 10:00:40 UTC 2007

On Mon, 21 May 2007, Christopher D. Coppola wrote:
> 1. "Net Zero Impact on license proliferation within 6 months" - The approval 
> will result in a net zero impact on the number of OSI approved licenses. To 
> the best of our knowledge the ECL 1.0 is only used by communities in 
> Education which have been closely coordinated. All involved will switch to 
> ECL 2.0 as soon as it's approved and then ECL 1.0 can be de-commissioned. We 
> expect this would happen within 6 months.

OK, this is pretty compelling; still not enough for me personally to 
recommend ECL 2.0 over the Apache license, as I disagree that it adds 
clarity to the scope of the patent grant, but I now would not encourage 
people to vote against its approval.  I think we both share the goal of 
seeing ECL 2.0 as a stepping stone to an Apache-licensed Sakai, etc.; the 
risk is that if the stone is too comfortable the walker might not have any 
motivation to finish the journey.

> 3. A core part of our IP management practices include using contributor 
> license agreements. Our CLA's are based on Apache's CLA's with one change to 
> limit the scope of patent grants. This is a requirement for the large 
> research universities involved in our projects at present. This is the reason 
> *we cannot simply adopt the Apache license and CLA's." We have been working 
> with institutional counsel for 2 years. Though we are making progress, it is 
> likely to take years to change the IP policies of major universities like 
> University of California and MIT.

Which is hard for me to understand, as these organizations have released 
code under the BSD licenses for ages, which had an even vaguer and 
(generally-interpreted-as) much more generous license, and I know there 
have been contributions from Berkeley and MIT employees to various Apache 
projects (with institutional approval, I don't know, but can only assume). 
And I still can't get past the karmic undertone of the request, that the 
contributors want to still be in a position to litigate against people who 
create derivative works based on patent IP in their contributions.

> The idea that there might be an implied patent license is an interesting one. 
> If a contributor knew that a particular patent to which they held the rights 
> would be infringed by their contribution, and failed to disclose the 
> existence of the patent at the time of the contribution, it could well be 
> that a court would find some form of implied patent license.
> But it’s har to guess what a court would do in those circumstances.

Didn't the Rambus case from a few years back set a precedent?  As I recall 
(and I'm not net-connected at the moment to be sure), Rambus advocated to 
a consortium of memory chip manufacturers a particular approach that later 
Rambus sought patent licensing for.  The courts, IIRC, found against 
Rambus in that case.  I forget if the decision was based on contract law 
(did Rambus agree in contract to disclose any related IP, or to not sue 
over any they had?) or if it was based on antitrust (given that a patent 
is a temporary monopoly), or something else.  But it seems like it would 
at least be a touchstone for any judge considering a case like this.

> Our goal for the ECL v.2.0 -- and for the contribution agreements that 
> support it, because Sakai, Kuali and the other projects that have 
> adopted the ECL can only pass along whatever patent rights our 
> contributors are willing to give -- is to include an express patent 
> license that covers this scenario, so users don't have to speculate 
> about what a court might do. While we might wish for a broader license 
> that would cover all of the inventions coming out of an entire 
> university or institution --

I don't think that's a fair characterization of my position or of the 
Apache license; perhaps it was not intended to be, but by presenting that 
as the other side, we are moved further away from the goal.  The Apache 
CLA only covers the patents the contributor owns that apply to their 
contribution, and to the version of the larger software work they 
contributed to.  If someone adds an invention later that is owned by the 
first contributor, it's not covered.  And the grant only covers the work 
and derivative works; it doesn't make any patent grants to other 
non-open-source software.

> and indeed, we fought hard for as broad of a patent license as possible, 
> both in our discussions with individual contributors and their 
> institutions, and during the international summit on open source 
> licensing in higher education that we organized -- many institutions 
> just couldn’t agree with this because they felt that this would in 
> effect force all of the inventors at that institution to be contributors 
> to the project.

Then there was massive misunderstanding of the CLA, unless again the case 
is overstated.  You're on better ground when describing the limits the 
university has on granting access to some of the patents they claim to 
own, patents derived from research funded jointly with other institutions 
- as that moves an inadvertant grant from simply "loss of revenue to the 
institution from commercial outfits that create derivative works" to 
"breach of contract with second institution".  But even then, I have to 
work to arrive at a place of compassion for that position.  Given that the 
first institution presumably conducts joint research with more than one 
other institution, there must be some tracking process to ensure that the 
joint work with a third institution doesn't infringe inadvertantly upon 
the patents granted on the work conducted between first and second 
institution.  I would guess this to not be an uncommon concern given that 
all three (or N) institutions may be focusing on the same research topic, 
such as cancer fighting or nanotech, and thus keeping track of who owns 
what patents would be very important.

Ah, I see a second vector of attack to possibly justify such a sentence. 
Let's say that I wish to rob Berkeley of its right to enforce U.S. patent 
31337.  I write code that implements that patent and get it into the Sakai 
project.  A Berkeley developer signs the CLA (which in this story looks 
like the Apache CLA) makes a contribution, which carries with it 
Berkeley's grant of any patent rights to the contributed whole... which at 
that point includes my code, unbeknownst to Berkeley.  Thus, patent 31337 
has been "liberated", because anyone who can create a derivative work of 
my 31337-implementing code has also inherited Berkeley's patent grant, and 
the Apache license allows them to work that code into unrelated commercial 
software and still inherit that grant.  Of course, this approach does not 
work for non-software-related patents, and ignores the difficulty in 
isolating "patent that implements the code" and injecting that into 
existing software so as to avoid patent licensing fees.

I really have to stand on my head to get enough blood to the brain to 
visualize this as being a reasonable risk that can not be mitigated.  It 
seems like it would be very straightforward for an institution's patent 
licensing office to give their engineering staff a list, ordered by 
associated revenue or mutual-defense value, of patents that are generating 
income and whose loss would be measurable, so as to avoid contributions 
that would lead to such an inadvertant grant.

> It is important to us that we have contributor license agreements which 
> provide explicit copyright and patent licenses to each contribution. If ECL 
> 2.0 is not approved, we will be forced to stick with ECL 1.0 which give us no 
> ability to leverage CLA's for many of our key contributors. This surely isn't 
> the best alternative for our communities.

ECL 2.0 requires the software recipient to go back through the 
contribution history - which could be very inscrutable even to core 
developers - to understand exactly who contributed the code that applies 
to a patent grant, and who that person happened to be working for at the 
time of their contribution.  It's even conceivable that a contribution 
doesn't directly implement a patent (thus not providing a grant), but 
enables it in related code, or turns it on by default, and could become a 
proxy for the dreaded submarine patent.  I would hope the lawyers have 
weighed this jeopardy and the diligence it'll require as an end-user 
against the benefits the ECL 2.0 patent language provides.

Apache's license and CLA, by contrast, in the worst case might require 
knowing whether the version at the time of contribution in question 
implemented the patent in question, but over the long term (covering older 
patents held by historic contributors) reduces the possibility of 

> In summary, we are respectfully requesting that ECL 2.0 be approved. Of two 
> issues raised, we addressed one as suggested, and the other we've provided 
> compelling reasoning why it cannot be addressed at this point. We intend to 
> remain vigilant on the matter and eventually hope these projects and our 
> efforts will effect a reform in institutions' IP policies. This is going to 
> take years, but once we've succeeded, we would endeavor to move to a popular 
> license such as the Apache 2.0 license.

I think I've said all I need to say on this.  It really does come down to 
a value judgement on the part of this community, as to whether an 
acceptable balance is struck between incentives for contributors and legal 
reassurance for users.  Open Source has long been about constraining the 
flexibility of contributors and licensors in the interests of recipients, 
and I think because of this, the implicit economic value realized by 
recipients has been huge.

Russ, time to run a vote?


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