OPHI Document title: ophi/an overview of flexible licensing
Version: @@@
Date: 11/5/2003
Status: Draft
Document: openphi.mit.edu/.... for
Please send any comments on the document to Marshall Van Alstyne
Author of this version: Licensing group
For more information check the Open Process Handbook Initiative at: http://ccs.mit.edu/ophi/



October 25, 2003


Flexible Licensing – An Overview





Marshall Van Alstyne

University of Michigan


These paragraphs present the case for a socially responsible business model based on the logic of free/libre and open source software.  In essence, we propose a hybrid of existing licenses that captures most of their benefits while mitigating most of their costs.  It also permits both non-profits and for-profits to become self-sustaining.


The key argument is balance.  There exist economic reasons why a self-interested for-profit firm would move from a strict proprietary license toward more openness and access.  Conversely, there exist social reasons why a non-profit seeking to do the greatest good would move to stimulate innovation.  One fosters adoption and high quality through access.  The other fosters enhanced functionality via gains through trade.  Accordingly, the proposal articulates a “meta-license” that exhibits properties of both proprietary and open licenses but at different times.


The author of an original software work will make available a portion of that code under open source terms in order that any third party can use, enhance, and extend it.  Under one form of open source license (e.g. GPL), all subsequent developers surrender their rights to control redistribution of anything they create based on open code.  Under another form of open source license (e.g. BSD), subsequent developers never surrender these rights.  The former hurts “trade” because a developer can only exchange his or her intellectual contribution once before access becomes theoretically universal.  The latter hurts users and code base consistency by forking the code into closed and open systems. 


The compromise is to let subsequent developers keep an interest in their intellectual contribution but only for a limited time.  This helps them trade on their innovations for awhile before each enhancement returns to the community code base.  Developers may temporarily sell an innovation but if they do, then they also owe something to the original author for having made the innovation possible.


This mechanism benefits the original author, subsequent developers, and users whoever they may be.  If the author operates for profit, then the firm or individual retains a complementary resource which they sell into a growing community.  As the value of peanut-butter rises, sales of jelly also rise.  If the author was not-for-profit, then opening the entire code base grows the community faster.  The author may also benefit from royalties on any subsequent developer sales so that the community becomes self-sustaining instead of subsidized.  If developers operate for profit, they gain the right to trade on their contributed value for a brief period.  If they are altruistic, they may forgo this option and contribute their enhancement back to the open pool at any time before the trading period expires.  Users benefit from a more rapidly growing code base while paying only marginal value for the latest innovations (and then only to that subset of developers who charge).  Forking is limited and all innovations eventually become free, both in the sense of beer and in the sense of liberty.


There are several associated documents that provide further detail.  These are the license itself, a précis of deeper reasoning on the proposed solution, and an associated FAQ.  These can be found respectively at the following locations:


1 – précis of reasoning expressed in general terms: http://www.copyflex.org <or creative commons.org>

2 – License: http://www.phios.org

3 – FAQ: (the FAQ itself needs to be written)