Control Or Consensus?

You’re entitled to your opinion but in open source licensing only the consensus of the community really matters.


In a recent conversation on the Apache Legal mailing list, a participant opined that “any license can be Open Source. OSI doesn’t ‘own’ the term.” He went on to explain “I could clone the Apache License and call it ‘Greg’s License’ and it would be an open source license.” 

As long as the only people involved in the conversation are the speaker and people who defer to his authority, this might be OK. But as soon as there are others involved, it’s not. For the vast majority of people, the term “open source license” is not a personal conclusion resulting from considered evaluation, but rather a term of art applied to the consensus of the community. Individuals are obviously free to use words however they wish, just like Humpty Dumpty. But the power of the open source movement over two decades has arisen from a different approach.

The world before open source left every developer to make their own decision about whether software was under a license that delivers the liberty to use, improve and share code without seeking the permission of a rights holder. Inevitably that meant either uncertainty or seeking advice from a lawyer about the presence of software freedom. The introduction of the open source concept around the turn of the millennium solved that using the crystalisation of consensus to empower developers.

By holding a public discussion of each license around the Open Source Definition, a consensus emerged that could then by crystalised by the OSI Board. Once crystalised into “OSI Approval”, the community then has no need to revisit the discussion and the individual developer has no need to guess (or to buy advice) on the compatibility of a given license with software freedom. That in turn means proceeding with innovation or deployment without delay.

The authority of OSI to vouch for the software freedom value of a given license arises not from individual fiat — it’s not “just one more view” — but rather from the consensus of the whole open source community. The certainty that brought unlocked the power of software freedom and unleashed the open source revolution that now, 20 years later, has become the technology industry default. OSI is not King, ruling by fiat and whim; it is the Speaker of the House, wielding only the power delegated by the assembly.

This is not to say OSI is the only arbiter. Large communities like Apache, Debian or the Free Software foundation each have their own approaches to identifying which licenses are acceptable. They usually pick just one as the constitution for their community, delivering freedom and confidence that empowers developers to innovate. But OSI’s role as a general steward of consensus serves the wider community and as such even gets referenced in many community-internal processes, such as at Apache.

So to paraphrase the original comment: any license can be open source, but who cares until the community agrees and the OSI confirms.


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