Inside Advanced Scale Challenges|Wednesday, December 13, 2017
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Tech Giants Adopt ‘Balanced’ Licensing Approach 

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Some of the largest stakeholders in the booming open-source software community have issued new licensing guidelines for developers designed to thwart aggressive or unfounded enforcement of intellectual property claims while reducing uncertainty over compliance.

Open source leader Red Hat (NYSE: RHT) along with Facebook, Google and IBM collectively launched an effort this week to "promote additional predictability in open source licensing" via new guidelines designed to reduce compliance errors. The guidelines extend a more lenient approach to licensing compliance to earlier versions of widely used open source software licenses. The licenses cover, for example, key components of Linux.

The latest version of licensing rules covering open source software includes a provision that allows users to "cure" errors in license compliance. The approach "allows for enforcement of license compliance that is consistent with community norms," Red Hat noted in a statement released Monday (Nov. 27). The relaxed rules for license compliance errors would be extended to software code protected under previous versions of the public licensing rules.

The move was prompted by concerns that overly aggressive enforcement of licenses could hinder open source development, the companies said. "We believe in promoting greater fairness and predictability in license enforcement and the growth of participation in the open source community," added Michael Cunningham, Red Hat's general counsel.

Allen Lo, Facebook's (NASDAQ: FB) deputy general counsel, described the initiative as "extending the good faith opportunity for developers to correct errors in license compliance."

Navigating the shark-infested waters of software licensing has been more complicated as more open source applications incorporate proprietary code, increasing the risks of legal liability for patent infringement. The four companies noted that their licensing initiative is backed by two of the top five patent holders (IBM and Google).

Red Hat noted that much of its software is released under the widely used General Public License (GPL) guidelines. The latest version extends the grace period to comply with a software license before it is terminated. Red Hat noted in a blog post that it "releases much of the software it develops under licenses in the GPL family, reflecting both the choices made by the upstream community projects we depend on and the preferences of our own engineers…."

Conspicuously absent from the open source licensing initiative is Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), the leading enterprise software vendor and a top patent holder.

The new guidelines are targeted primarily at Linux, among the largest open-source code bases. "A better understanding of identifying where GPL licensed code exists in products and guides for how to comply with the terms can better enable the [open source] ecosystem to comply with GPL licensing,” Kate Stewart, senior director of strategic programs at The Linux Foundation, noted earlier this year.

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 25 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as Executive Editor for Electronic Engineering Times.

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