Software Licensing

This month the newly minted biology-in-python mailing list erupted into a discussion of licenses. There was some confusion about the goal of the discussion, for which I'm largely responsible: we didn't make it clear that we were talking about licenses for code and content posted on the community Web site, so people were worried that we were trying to dictate license choices for all Python/bioinformatics software! Not at all! Anyway, I'm happy with the decision that we've posted, which is to place tutorial/example code under the BSD license, and discussion under Creative Commons/attribution.

A number of really interesting posts came through on this subject: Bruce Southey posted a number of interesting links, including Would Dostoevsky use the GPL? and Maintaining Permissive-Licensed Files in a GPL-Licensed Project. Josh Wilcox posted about a "grace period" hack in which, to quote,

In addition to the terms of the GNU General Public License, this
licence also comes with the added permission that, if you become
obligated to release a derived work under this licence (as per
section 2.b), you may delay the fulfillment of this obligation for
up to 12 months ("grace period").  If you are obligated to release
code under section 2.b of this licence, you are obligated to release
it under these same terms, including the 12-month grace period

This is an interesting idea but I have no idea if, in this case, companies would care at all: we're talking about tutorial and example code here, not real software.

I also found it extremely interesting to watch the dynamics between the free-as-in-beer and free-as-in-speech people. I'm currently willing to release software under either license -- I relicensed twill from GPL to BSD with the last release, for example -- but I have very little sympathy with the idea that companies should be able to take my code, close it, modify it, and resell it. Nonetheless I understand that competing ideologies exist and I'm willing to accomodate them as best I can. (Conveniently for my leanings both of the universities I work for, Caltech and MSU, demand that work-related software be released under the GPL.) Watching people consistently misrepresent their positions -- I assume they did so knowingly -- as "the GPL is free-er than the BSD!" and "the BSD is free-er than the GPL!" -- was very interesting and informative. (I would put it this way: the GPL restricts software use in specific ways, with the ultimate goal of increasing the freedom to use all derivatives of that software.)

Anyway, the list conversation got a bit long, and after I received a number of complaints about how annoying the list was becoming, I ended the discussion by fiat: I declared that we should either stop discussing licenses for 6 months, or we should move ongoing discussion to a new list. Enough people expressed interest that I created a new list, bip-admin, to contain further admin discussion for (I realized later that meta-bip would have been a better name. Alas, renaming mailman lists is not trivial.)

One of the most frustrating things about the license discussion was that we really have no content whatsoever on, and here we were discussing how to handle all of this nonexistent content rather than writing some! I am both amused and horrified at the ability of people (including myself!) to talk about procedure and protocol endlessly while failing to actually do useful work. I guess it's the human condition -- heck, Og and Boog probably argued about the proper protocol for deciding whose turn it was to go get more firewood, back when we lived in caves...


Legacy Comments

Posted by Erich Schwarz on 2007-09-30 at 18:20.

<i>I am both amused and horrified at the ability of people (including
myself!) to talk about procedure and protocol endlessly while failing
to actually do useful work.</i>    Cases in point:    "Everybody wants
to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes."  --P.J.
O'Rourke.    "Visualize! using your turn signal." --Anonymous bumper-
sticker author.

Posted by Titus Brown on 2007-10-01 at 14:42.

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