Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
In his book, "Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing" (193 pages , O'Reilly Media, 2004, ISBN 0-596-00581-4), Andrew M. St. Laurent attempts to help readers understand the variations and complexities involved in deciding what kind of licensing model to apply to software being developed and how to understand the complexities and requirements of open source and free software licensing that someone may want to use and incorporate in software packages being developed for internal use and/or external distribution. If you are willing to slog through this short book (I say slog because it is full of legal terminology) to filter out his explanations, you may find this book useful. If you are not, you may find yourself frustrated.

As a lawyer, Mr. St. Laurent does a very capable job in explaining the history of copyright law and then picking apart what the individual sections of licences actually mean. But he lost me early on by the very way he organizes and characterizes certain fundamental concepts, and this presentation is carried through out the book. At the outset, he talks about the fact that licenses are in fact contracts, but does not get into detailed discussions of how contracts are formed and the issues of contracts until Chapter 6. In this chapter he talks about assumptions about contracts and meanders his ways around to discussions of the required elements to have a contract, but never addresses them as such. Instead, he treats them as "concepts" as opposed to requirements. This discussion, which should have been covered in Chapter 1 as a succinct discussion of the required elements of a valid contract, easily gets lost as the readers may have struggled through all of the legal jargon and analysis that proceeded it. If he had done so, the discussion around each of the licenses could have been presented and understood in a more straightforward manner.

That leads to my second criticism of the book. He treats each type of license (GPL, MIT, BSD, GNU General Public License, etc) individually, which made it more difficult to cross reference. As a reader interested in the best type of license to work with or how to understand a license presented, I would preferred to have each element of s standard license discussed, followed up by a comparison of how each license type addresses this issue. At the end (or even as an addendum), a chart showing the relationships, restrictions, permissions, etc of all the licenses would have been very useful.

This is not to say that the book is without merit. He does make it easy to see how people and companies/corporations can easily slip up in how they approach open source/free software. He also talks about how these different types of licensing models have evolved over time. And without saying it, he started my mind thinking about the concept of "legal capacity" and contracts. In most of the United States, a widely held legal concept is that an unemancipated minor (i.e. someone under the age of 18) does have the legal capacity to enter into a contract and these contracts cannot be legally enforced. If this continues to be held as a legal principal, how can any software license be enforced against young people who buy, sell, trade, "liberate" ( a nicer word for stealing copies), or do other things with software they have purchased? This might make for an interesting discussion down the road.

So who should read this book? This book should be retained by business control, purchasing/acquisition and information system audit professionals as a guide when reviewing licensing issues related to internal controls and IS governance. These professionals should read and digest the material, with the help of legal counsel, and educate developers, administrators, and line of business project sponsors as to what it means and how it applies. It is not a book for developers and administrators should have themselves unless they really want to get into legal nitty gritty.

The Business Controls Caddy Rating: Bogey on Short Par 4.

Christopher Byrne, IBM CAAD/CASA

The Cayuga Group, LLC

"The Business Controls Caddy"

[...]
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
I am an attorney who does open source software license work for a living. When this book came along, I picked it up, mostly because I was interested in seeing how O'Reilly does branching out well beyond its usual technical subjects. As you are probably aware, 2004 was the year of open source, according to some publications. Well, it was also the year of open source books. I have seen at least five that deal with the topic directly.

Getting to the merits of St. Laurent's book, I struggled with whether to give it three or four stars. You see, even as a lawyer I found it lacking in clarity and flow. Overall, I am opposed to the route he took in excerpting almost every term of each license and then providing exposition of his own that was a lot of times hardly more helpful than the original license language. A better approach to explaining the licenses can be found in Larry Rosen's wonderful book "Open Source Licensing." However, this downside becomes an upside when using the book as a reference, instead of an educational guide (justifying the fourth star). St. Laurent's approach here is useful for going into more depth on a particular license. Perhaps that was the goal all along.

Another advantage this book has over Rosen's is its broader treatment of the growing array of licenses and license types. St. Laurent covers more licenses and for that I am thankful. In the end, I would recommend having a copy of both Rosen's and St. Laurent's book handy. And whatever you do, skip Rod Dixon's "Open Source Software Law."
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2005
Understanding Open Source & Free Software Licensing

Andrew M. St. Laurent

[...]

When sharing with others that I was reviewing an O'Reilly book through their User Group & Professional Association Program, the first question was always the same: "What book are you reviewing?" After saying the title was "Understanding Open Source & Free Software Licensing", responses ranged from "What's that?" to "Well, you won't have any trouble sleeping!" One might think that this list of people included relatives and coworkers who were not attuned to the open source community and its issues. On the contrary, the responses came from those within my circle of acquaintances that include software developers, system administrators, and even an intellectual property lawyer. Licensing is not exactly the sort of topic where people slide forward in their seats and ask to be told more. Such is the appeal of software licensing; however, the importance of understanding licensing, particularly within the context of open source development, cannot be overstated.

Those familiar with the O'Reilly product offerings have no doubt seen or purchased one or more their Pocket Reference series ([...] They are not comprehensive references, but rather convenient guides for a specific topic to provide the sort of information one is not likely to have committed to memory, particularly as the trend of having cross-disciplined technologists continues. This book could be considered the analog of pocket guides for open source and free software licensing. Open source licenses and their legal interpretation are subject matter that easily warrant a "pocket reference" that is a full-sized book of nearly 200 pages.

Frankly, reading through a software license and maintaining a reasonable level of comprehension is a rather tough job. The author manages to make the task far more bearable and fruitful at the same time; a difficult balance to strike. The pace of the annotation works well to break up the various licenses (twelve in total) into bite-sized chunks. Chapters 2 and 3, which address the BSD/MIT family of licenses and the GPL/LGPL/MPL family of licenses respectively, each end with a section titled "Application and Philosophy" that serves as a sort of reward for making it through the license and establishes a touchstone to summarize and provide meaningful context for what has been covered.

The annotations of the different licenses are a great introduction, but the book should not be considered as a complete reference for open source licensing issues. The book seems to affirm this at points where the author indicates that particular topics fall outside the book's scope, even to the point of recommending experienced legal counsel for certain issues. It also has a wonderful collection of footnotes and reference to other resources to allow the reader to flesh out topics of interest beyond the focus of this work.

One subtlety of the book that should not be missed is how the history of the open source movement is woven throughout the book to provide the context in which these licenses came into being and were modified to accommodate the vibrant, emerging world of open development models. The book's last two chapters bring that context to the foreground, fully developing the consequence of the licenses in daily development activity. It is far too easy to view these licenses and as mere legal documents that exist in and of themselves; the author reminds us that these licenses are the manifestations of a spirit of selfless contribution and work toward social good made possible by the considerable sacrifice of quite gifted individuals. For those passionate about the open source and free software movements, the section of chapter 7 titled "Models of Open Source and Free Software Development" is a poignant and stirring encapsulation of the first years of the GNU and Linux projects and the work that brought them into being. The cliché rings true; we do indeed "stand on the shoulders of giants."

The number of editorial errors involving misspelled and/or missing words seemed relatively high; this is a trend that seems to have developed in technical books in recent years, to a point that the technical community has come to accept it as some sort of side effect of the rapid pace with which books must be produced in order to keep pace with the rate of change. Given that this is an issue present in other works as well as this one, it should not particularly count as a mark against the work, but rather serve to underscore an issue publishers should consider improving.

"Understanding Open Source & Free Software Licensing" is a book which strikes a balance between completeness of subject matter coverage and manageability of size. Given the amount of attention the average open source user or developer has given to licensing, reading this book would be a considerable improvement. This book is recommended for a couple of audiences. First, it serves as a great foundation for developers either active in or contemplating participation in open source development. Searching most any open source mailing list for the term "license" can usually turn up some of its hottest flame wars. If most developers had this introductory level of understanding about the main open source licenses, hundreds of message threads arguing about licensing could be avoided.

A second audience for this book is the project manager and/or CTO in most corporate IT shops. Most corporate projects are making use of numerous open source libraries and frameworks. This is particularly true with J2EE, but also with .Net as a number of .Net counterparts to popular J2EE resources arise, e.g. NAnt, NUnit, etc. This book can dispel unnecessary apprehension regarding the use of these libraries that often arises from fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) propagated in much of the mainstream technology media. It can also equip managers to make informed decisions about team members' potential contributions to open source projects and the potential legal implications.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
O'Reilly books are traditionally written for an experienced computing audience. For the most part, the publisher has eshewed going after a mass market. This book is a little different from the usual fare. It is certainly aimed at experienced IT personnel. But it is in a context where they are now laymen.

The author gives a careful exposition of the many legal niceties surrounding open source licensing. He tries to convey nuances that are implied by the generous amounts of boilerplate quoted from common licensing schemes like GPL. Frankly, you may have to force yourself to concentrate and plow through the text. Unless your expertise is patent and copyright law, the book is not the easiest reading. No fault of the author. And the issues he discusses can certainly impact your company's code development.

The book is probably most suitable for an IT manager.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Software licensing can be one of the most confusing issues of software installation and development. Most people assume that there are few if any issues with Open Source and Free Software Licensing but that often is not the case. While it may be free to install you wade into murky waters when you change the code, make a new program that uses some of the coding of the open source program, make a derivative program, or a host of other situations. Part of the confusion is that all Open Source or Free Software licensing is not the same. For example there are the MIT, BSD, Apache, and Academic Free Licenses. Or what about the GNU license? Most people don't realize that there are two different versions of GNU licenses, the GNU General Public License (GPL) and the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL)? Then there is the Mozilla Public License, Q Public License, Artistic License, and Creative Commons License.

Author Andrew M. St. Laurent does an excellent job explaining all these various licenses, what you can do and can't do, the various benefits and shortcomings of the licenses and pitfalls to watch for. If you are doing development in this arena, have made an improvement to one of the programs, or have written a program for internal use that might have resell value you can't afford to not understand the nuances of the various licensing agreements. Understanding Open Source & Free Software Licensing is highly recommended and required reading for anyone in this situation.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 1, 2004
I think the book accomplishes what it sets out to do quite well. Let's be clear, it's a book about licenses and legal issues. If you're not a lawyer, don't try to read this without your favorite caffeinated beverage within reach.

If you are considering releasing software under a free or open source license, this book does a fine job at comparing and contrasting the different types of existing licenses. It gives you examples from existing software projects of what types of things may happen with your software based on which type of license you choose to distribute your code under.

On the flipside, if you are considering using some of open source software in a commercial project, this will give you pointers as to what types of things you can and can't do with software licensed under the various free and open source licenses. The author's explanations are easy to understand.

It also describes the Sun Community Source License, which explains what you can and can't do with the Java source code, for example, which I found interesting. The only thing I didn't find an explanation for was why every license needs to USE ALL CAPS SOMEWHERE in the text... =)

The book does what it sets out to do; compare and contrast the various free and open source licenses.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I say in the subject that it brings 'more' life to a dry subject because I review Prentice-Halls "Open Source Licensing" a while back and found that it brought life to the subject of licensing, but this book is better.

First off, it's not just annotated licenses. The first chapter and the last few chapters provide a perspective on licensing through the perspective of the open source software developer. That is invaluable. Without perspective the book is simply translations of legal mumbo jumbo. These perspective sections provide a mental framework for understanding the need for licensing and how it fits into the software development life-cycle.

I highly recommend this book to those who are confused by the morass of open source licenses. It effectively clears away the fog and provides both perspective and translation on this difficult subject.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I honestly didn't think I'd find this as interesting as I did. As important as licenses are, an annotated listing of them didn't sound like anything I wanted to flop back on the couch with. However, the author has managed to make this both interesting and educational.

It covers all the common open source licenses, explaining what each section means, and digging into problems that might come up for the licensor or licensee. Open Source isn't all that it covers: standard shrink-wrap licenses are examined, as is Sun's Community Source License and Microsoft's "Shared Source Initiative".

Finally, the book itself is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs license. It is interesting that O'Reilly is willing to publish works like this, but I'm glad they are.
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on September 23, 2004
I've had a good hour or so to sit and read through "Understanding Open Source & Free Software Licensing, by Andrew M. St. Laurent (Oreilly 2004 - ISBN: 0596005814) and thought I would share my opinion on it.

Let me first begin by saying that the author did a great job of being concise. I'd had some free time today, and was at first hesitant to begin, as I thought it may be too dry for a saturday afternoon. St. Laurent did a great job of reeling me in though, with a quick, easy to understand example of basic copyright as it stands in the US, along with brief explanations on how closed-source and open-source licensing influences that copyright.

The book then goes into different types of open source/free software licensing: GPL, LGPL, Apache, Qt, Creative Commons, BSD, etc - all of the usual suspects, and then some. Then, in chapter 5, the author talks about "Closed Source" licensing, for the reason being that "understanding proprietary licenses can also be important, as companies...(are) attempting to reap some of the benefits of a more open development model."

Chapters 6 and 7 get to the heart of the matter, discussing the legal aspects, derived works and forking of OS projects, choosing a license and even the "negative" aspects of OS licensing.

I would say that the author deserves your hard-earned sheckles for this book. He does a good job of delivering a widely debated, legal topic to the folks who need to understand it the most, software developers and their IT collegues.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2008
this book covers all of modern open source license which i wanted to know. also, it explain them very easy understanding way.
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