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Interview: Ask Bruce Perens About Open Source Licensing 51

Bruce Perens is one of the mainstays of Linux and the Open Source movement, but he has never gotten as much publicity as Linus Torvalds, Richard M. Stallman or Eric S. Raymond. His latest project is TECHNOCRAT.NET. He sent in a few notes (hit "Read More" to see them) about what's happening on the Open Source licensing front, an area in which he is one of the World's Leading Experts(tm). Bruce will happily answer questions about Open Source and related software licensing issues. Instead of posting your questions here, please send them to We'll choose the 10 or 12 best ones, forward them to Bruce, and post the answers in a day or two.

When to Stop Complaining

I'm known for complaining, publicly, when I think something's wrong. There's another side to that, though, if you want to be an agent for constructive change and be taken seriously. When people fix what you are complaining about, you can't just keep complaining, you have a choice of shutting up or saying something nice. So, it's time to say something nice about two huge companies.

Good News From IBM

A while ago, I publicly complained about IBM's termination clause in their original Jikes license. Lots of people read my complaint and made it clear they felt the same way, and IBM noticed. An IBM product manager and attorney contacted me, they fixed their license, they released the license for public criticism, and they put the new license on Jikes and PostFix (IBM Secure Mailer). IBM is referred to as the 600-pound-gorilla of the computer industry, but in this case they were an extremely polite and accommodating 600-pound-gorilla that did the right thing for the community. They should be praised for that. I like their new license so much that I'm going to use PostFix as the mail-delivery agent on my own system. I've been using qmail, but its license isn't really compliant with the Open Source Definition so it's time to switch.

Apple, Too

The Debian developers and I publicly complained about the original Apple Public Source license. Again, lots of people read our complaint and helped get the message across to Apple. The press and even some Open Source pundits handled our complaints very poorly, treating them as an "attack" rather than the constructive criticism we meant. Apple, however, handled our criticism extremely well. They addressed our complaints in the APSL version 1.1 . Again, a big company that should be praised for doing the right thing for the community.

Other Companies

Lots of other companies have recently come out with software that complies with the Open Source Definition. They all seem to be taking an OSD-compliant license quite seriously as a prerequisite for community participation in their projects, and many companies are contacting me for a reality-check before they release their licenses for public criticism. I've been able to save a few of them from embarassing gaffes. I'm currently working with several really big companies on OSD-compliant licenses.

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Ask Bruce Perens About Open Source Licensing

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  • You hold copyright on everything you write. If you don't grant them permission to reproduce it, they can't without risking an unwinnable lawsuit. You'd end up with something that looked like this:

    Q (Deleted due to copyright issues)
    A Yes, that's correct.

    Furthermore, they didn't want to limit what they did with those questions; they might want to post them somplace else, reproduce them in an interview, publish them in a book, or whatever. Assuming that you granted them all these rights would be wrong. Telling you ahead of time "Don't submit material if you aren't willing to do this" is perfectly honorable. Not asking for exclusive rights is, too.

  • Roblimo, are you reading this?

    Of course! I read almost *all* Slashdot comments. And I respond to all the e-mail I get, too, most of which says, "Don't pay any attention to anonymous flamers, you're doing fine." ;-)

    I don't claim to know everything. I take all feedback, both negative and positive, quite seriously. I just don't feel that I'm important enough to be worth much public discussion, so I tend to confine my responses to private e-mail instead of making them in public.

    For instance, the story to which *this* comment is appended is about Bruce Perens, a truly nice man for whom I have tremendous respect, and I feel bad about taking up even this little bit of *his* limelight.

    If you want to continue this discussion, let's do it by e-mail [mailto], okay?

  • I consider that the use of the is of identity is a dangerous construct, that should be avoided in a manner similar to the goto constuct.
    (Also, the subject appears to confuse the assignment with the equality test).
  • Well, from what I've seen around the traps, and the people that I know, one company is almost definitely Sun and the SCSL.

    A lot of the engineers inside Sun are pissed at the SCSL in a big way - particularly the commercial clause. At JavaOne, a number of different BOFs that I attended, when Sun lawyers were present, they copped a hammering about the SCSL (admittedly I was one of the people doing said hammering). From memory the SCSL and JINI BOFs were the two most problematical for their legal types.

    Here's what I know is going on inside at the moment. The Java Media folks are pushing through a version of SCSL that does not include the commercial clause. That is, you can pretty much do anything you like with it - no compatibility checks, no license fees etc. Take the source and run. I imagine this would bring it extremely close to satisfying the open source guidelines. Naturally the Sun legal people are having a hard time swallowing this so it is taking some time to get through (It's been going at least for the last 3 months that I know of). Note that this is not changing the core SCSL, just a variant of it minus the crappy bits (like the Jini License is a variant of the SCSL).

    The first of the Java Media APIs to undergo this is JSDT (Java Shared Data Toolkit). Once this goes through, pretty much all of the rest of the Java Media stuff will be following in quick succession. (Java3D, Media Framework, Sound and Advanced Imaging).

    BTW - This is not leaking any private information. The Sun people at the JSDT BOF were the ones talking about this (Rich Burridge and Mike Bundschuh (sp?)) out in the open. Also, directly talking with the various Java Media marketing types and engineers running the stands there were talking about it too.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Better Form:
    (Bruce == REAL_WORK) && (ESR == (MS_HATE | SELF_EGO))

    /* I prefer to use explicit parenthesis rather than trust precedence, but that's just me. */

    BTW -- Has anyone else noticed that Bruce's last name "Perens" is awfully close to "parens" -- the programmer shorthand for "parenthesis"? Some people say your name determines your destiny....

    Of couse, MY real name is "Curly Brackettes" :)
  • Also, the subject appears to confuse the assignment with the equality test

    It could be valid - he's assigning real work to
    Bruce, and testing ESR's motives ^_^

    How come there's an "open source" entry in the
  • What makes slashdot `management' think they should be the sole arbiters of what constitutes a good question?

    Possibility #1: Because they want to use this same process for other entities who might not know how to handle thousands of duplicate and/or 'drecky' responses.

    I bet it simply never occured to them to ask everybody to post their questions to /., allow the moderation scheme to float the cream to the top and then skim the cream.

    Possiblity #2: Muwahahahahaha! /. rulers have gone power hungry and want to control everything. :^)

    I think things will be a bit different the next time around.

  • Check out this []. It's Bruce's Slashdot user's page, and lists 77 posts in the last few weeks alone. Bruce is a heavy poster to Slashdot, he clearly reads a lot of content and posts, and takes the time to reply to them. (BTW, Bruce, thanks for taking that time, it means a lot.)

    I'm sure that Bruce will follow this thread, and the thread on the followup article. Ask you questions there, and if Bruce thinks they're worth answering, I suspect he will. You can't get much more open than that.

    Slashdot is actually just providing a filtering service. No everyone cares enough about any given issue to read the comments, but Rob tries to filter out the most interesting bits to the articles proper. I don't really care enough about say, The Who, the see what people have to say about it, but it's kinda neat to know about Lighthouse. On the other hand, I'm real interested in what Bruce Perens has to say (at the least he is an interesting writer), so I follow threads on such things.

    Anyway, in summary Rob/Slashdot filters questions. This is to allow those who are cursorily interested to get a quick glimpse of the action. Those of us who really care will read and post to the thread, which I expect will be chock full of Bruce replies.

  • I did some site tuning, and got the system below the thrash point. It seems to be working quite well now. Bring on the load, slashdot!



  • nor always a good thing. On the whole, I think the world is made a better place by Dan Bernstein's existance. Yes, the man has his warts, but he also has his gems too.
  • Perhaps you've simply noticed that Eric doesn't brag about what he's done? Don't you respect his humility?
  • Yeah, I've always considered Bruce 'The Linux Nut who dosen't make a fool of himself in public' ;)
  • I've noticed that you're a very active member of the qmail mailing list, and would like to thank you for your contributions.

    On a more on-topic note, qmails redistribution rules (such as they are) have always slightly bothered me. There was a thread some months back re: RedHat and qmail that highlighted some of the feelings people had.

    I think that Dan's managed to harness the usual benefits of Open Source in a slightly unusual manner: by making his code highly modular, it's fairly trivial to write alternatives to the standard modules that do what you want. This attracts a wider range of coders. A more monolithic application with sort of license would probably have languished for want of acceptance.

    - Tillman Hodgson
  • I just could not let this one go by until tomorrow. If you look into Debian, you'll find that I wrote a whole lot there, and did not simply manage packages. A lot of that work also found its way into Red Hat. I also did a lot of architecture work for Debian.

    Other software I've written can be found here []. And I'm currently writing software - I've made a lot of contributions to the Squishdot forum software in the past week.

    So, don't write me off as a writer, please.



  • No, it's a completely open list. If that causes problems I'll run a half-moderated list. A person's first posting is automatically moderated, but the second goes through. I already do it with the mgetty, fsb, lego-robotics, and quickcam-drivers mailing lists. Keeps 99% of spam off the list at a fairly low cost.

    Good point about dropping the -subscribe.
  • qmail has this nice wildcarding facility, where you can send all mail with a certain prefix to a certain file. So all mail sent to list-XYZ goes to a script which interprets XYZ as a command. Very sweet.
  • > Bring on the load, slashdot!

    Sounds like famous last words...:)

  • Someone pointed out the other day that "technocrat" is an anagram of "trenchcoat". :-)
  • Knowing when to acknowledge when people have changed shows that Bruce is more than just a hothead. Hopefully this rational discourse will benefit similar efforts in the future.

  • Posted by Forrest J. Cavalier III:

    Also there is license-discuss@ [], a mailing list where Bruce has been a very active participant. (I hope that doesn't stop!)

    Forrest J. Cavalier III, Mib Software Voice 570-992-8824
    The Reuse Rocket: []Efficient awareness for software reuse: Free WWW site
    lists over 6000 of the most popular open source libraries, functions, and applications.

  • by The Anonymous Cow ( 11359 ) on Wednesday July 28, 1999 @05:17AM (#1779295)
    I've seen that message board engine before.

    Are you sure? It's not slash, it's Squishdot (built on Zope, which is built on Python).

    Admittedly, the look-and-feel is "borrowed" from Slashdot, but the underlying technology is completely different. Check The Technology behind TECHNOCRAT.NET [] for more info.

  • Posted by Forrest J. Cavalier III:

    Good point, I'll remember your advice in the future. But it would have to be a pretty good robot harvester to process
    address @ []

    and get an address...That's the HTML format that shows on the page. Notice the space.

    BTW, isn't it a closed list anyway (only posts from subscribers are accepted?) That's the only good way of keeping spam off mailing lists.

    I'd think that if robots can be taught to remove "NOSPAM" from, then they certainly already know about dropping "-subscribe" from subscription addresses.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Sorry about the Anonymous Coward thing, I don't care much for creating a /. account.

    We have done some very heavy testing with Zope on high performance machines, and we have done well over a million hits a day with the ZPublisher architechture (ZPublisher is the Object Request Broker in the very core of Zope which turns HTTP/FTP/XML-RPC requests into object traversals) on modest PII hardware.

    We are also working on an add-on to Zope (which will NOT be open source) that is a client server version of the object database. This way, you can just keep throwing more and more clients at a database and have 50 machines serving up the same site over multiple pipes. This archetecture will not be needed for low to medium traffic sites. We envison this to be able to handle as much traffic or more than any other web application platform.

    Michel Pelletier
    Zope Developer
  • I don't know if it is his 768 k-bit pipe or the Apache/Zope/Squishdot engine on a Pentium 120, but the site is just about gone.

    I'd like to see some benchmarks for Zope on different configurations. This just highlights the need.
  • Please don't give out that address!!!!!!!! If you do, spammer's robots will find it and start spamming it. Instead, give out the subscribe robot's address. It will tell the users the submission address after they subscribe, plus it doesn't care if it gets spammed. Here's the right address to tell people:

  • What makes slashdot `management' think they should be the sole arbiters of what constitutes a good question?

    If Bruce is going to answer questions about Open Source the forum should be, um, OPEN.

  • qmail is an exception to the Open Source Definition. Purportedly, a project has to allow redistribution of modified binaries in order to get all the benefits of Open Source. Yet, Dan Bernstein has been able to do this without it. The answer is, of course, that very few of us can even approach being a Dan Bernstein.

    I'm on the board of the Open Source Initiative, and I use qmail because it's reliable and secure.
    p.s. I also sell support for it.
  • Roblimo's style doesn't really fit well with the other posters (except perhaps John Katz). This may be because he's more of a professional, but it can come off as too polished and too editorial.

    I like the way most content is presented on slashdot: There's a submitter's intro, a link, and a few lines from the poster. The submitter and the poster usually include personal opinions, but they are easily recognized as such and everyone can make up their own mind about the content of the link.

    This post from Roblimo does not present his take on the article as a personal opinion, and, ironicly, he's probably the poster on slashdot least qualified to make the statements he does.

    I'm not saying I don't like the article, but this new presentation is a turnoff. It seems too much like "Here's the way it is" instead of "Check this out and come to your own conclusions."

    -OT (who has complained too much recently, I know)
  • By submitting this message, you grant TECHNOCRAT.NET and its owners a separate and independent copyright to your posting, and you retain your own copyright. Thus, we can do whatever we want with your posting, and so can you.

    What is that all about?
  • Posted by BigOrno:

    Not that I have anything against ESR, but I sometime feel like what Bruce is doing is more along the "open source" spirit, i.e. do real work in the background that benefits to everybody, than ESR "high visibility" activities. What do you think ?
  • I'd think that if robots can be taught to remove "NOSPAM" from, then they certainly already know about dropping "-subscribe" from subscription addresses.

    You would be surprised what spam robots don't do. I append "-abuse" to my username, ie:, when posting to newsgroups and I have never been sent a spam to that address with or without the -abuse tag.

  • that very few of us can even approach being a Dan Bernstein.
    Which is not always a bad thing...
  • It's spending 90% of its time in Python. This is no surprise for a Pentium 120, it's time to make a trip to Fry's for a better CPU/motherboard, I guess. The 768K bit-per-second line is not being saturated.

    Given that it's database-driven, Zope is very scalable: just synchronize database writes and you can make any number of servers run the same site.



  • Rob said not to post questions to slashdot, but rather send them to an email address from where they will get `filtered' and the best ones passed to Bruce.

    My point is that, who are Rob et al to say what constitutes a good question? I can see that a certain amount of filtering, for example `Hey Bruce, why are you such a wanker'[1] type of posts is useful, but Bruce can do this himself if messages are sent directly to him.

    What I disagree with is the fact that only a dozen or so from possibly hundreds of useful, interesting, relevant questions which might otherwise have been posted in a more open forum, will eventually find themselves in Bruce's inbox. Simply because Rob or whomever didn't consider the question important enough, or didn't have time to read it.

    I note that a link to Bruce's site is given in the article, so why is it necessary[2] to send questions through slashdot?

    [1] Used in the spirit of example only. I have a great deal of respect for Mr Perens.

    [2] Or why does Rob feel it is?
  • Presumably, pretty much what it says.

    In practical terms, it means they'll write comments from the editor and attach them to your note. Presumably, it also means you can do the same, so you can have an entire discussion within a single post.

  • What are you hinting at? Who are these mysterious companies that you've been dealing with? At least hint... Pleeeease!!!

  • IIRC, if you grant too liberal a license, you lose your copyright. That's what happens in patents and trademarks, anyways. I believe the jargon for it is "naked licensing".

    If you look at the bottom of every /. page, you'll see "Comments are owned by the Poster", essentially meaning all rights to the post are reserved by the poster. This is usually how things are done. I don't recall ever seeing a scheme like the Technocrat one, although it appears to be a hybrid with the traditional print media and (for lack of a better descriptor) the /. model. Print media has always had their little disclaimer ("All letters submitted to us become our property, yadda yadda.") which basically strips the original writer of rights to the writing.

    It would be interesting to see how a court resolved a copyright dispute under the Technocrat scheme.


  • Because they are running the website. Other sites have other policies.
  • Is qmail used primarily for security benefits, or for some particular feature?

    I'm just wondering, because I'm somewhat surprised Bruce isn't using the GPLd Exim [] for his MTA. I've found it to be quite good, and it scales up well to at least several thousand users. Easy to configure, too. It doesn't support some of the more exotic transports like BITNET or FidoNet, though, I think.

    I'm guessing security, since I seem to recall a quasi-flamefest on Bugtraq between qmail and Secure Mailer over that issue.


  • The article was written by Bruce, not Roblimo. Your criticism is still valid, but I just wanted to point that one out
  • It's still up :-)
  • My point is that, who are Rob et al to say what constitutes a good question?

    Umm, the guys who put in many hours of the day running the website? The guys with editorial control over what stories are posted to the site?

    /. is not a public service that you pay for (directly) with your tax dollars, nor is Bruce Perens' expertise. /. is now, and has always been, a service provided to you by someone else, largely by the sweat of their brows.

    It's one thing to question their editorial policies and try to persuade them to do things differently. It's quite another to question their right to tailor the content on the site so it comes out the way they think best. If CT, Hemos, Roblimo and the rest of the gang (sorry to those I left out) became dictatorial and insensitive to the general will of /. readers, a lot of us would stop coming here. But of course they want to have a site that's worth reading. So if they're smart, they won't stop listening, and I think they do a pretty good job at that (at least I see no good evidence that they don't).

    Second: the editorial board (if I may call them that) of /. probably has at least a good sense of what's of general interest to the /. community as any one member, and collectively, probably a better one. That's not to say they can't be wrong (geez, guys, the Amiga things are getting me down) But as a policy, if the discussion's going to appear on /., why shouldn't they be allowed to do the filtering? If you have a question that's of interest to you, you can surely ask Mr. Perens in another forum. It's not like this is the *only* time you're ever going to have access to him.

    Finally: if Mr. Perens decided that this way of doing things is agreeable to him, then why isn't it agreeable to you? It's ultimately his baby anyhow.

    (oh, yeah, and why is it necessary to have a forum on slashdot? I suppose it isn't. But they feel like doing it, a lot of people might get enlightened by it, and not everybody has all day to read seventeen different nerdy sites.)

I've finally learned what "upward compatible" means. It means we get to keep all our old mistakes. -- Dennie van Tassel