Study: Developers Do Not Want GPL 3 to Police Patents

A new Microsoft-funded study has found that open-source developers do not believe that licenses such as the upcoming GNU General Public License 3.0 should enforce software patents or prevent deals like the Microsoft-Novell patent agreement.

The study by Harvard Business School professor Alan MacCormack, in collaboration with Keystone Strategy, is titled “A Developers Bill of Rights: What Open Source Developers Want in a Software License.”

“While many of the developers surveyed cited displeasure with the patent element of the Novell-Microsoft deal, the use of digital rights management to restrict the use of modified open-source software, or the enforcement of software patents, they did not believe it was the place of the GPLv3 or other licenses to prevent such deals or resolve such issues,” MacCormack told eWEEK in an interview.

Read here about the release of the third draft of GPL 3.

Although Microsoft paid for the Keystone staff that carried out the phone interviews for the study, the Redmond, Wash., software company “had no control over the questionnaire design or methodology, and certainly no control over the process of synthesizing themes in the data or the results that were found,” MacCormack said.

The full report can be downloaded in PDF form here.

The objective of the paper was to give open-source developers, who have been significantly underrepresented in the discussion over GPL 3, “a voice and bring their opinions into the debate, which has focused on the differing opinions among three groups: project leaders like Linus Torvalds and other top Linux kernel developers; foundations like the Free Software Foundation; and large technology companies such as Sun, HP, IBM and Novell,” he said.

“We targeted key developers who have control over major chunks of the code base. These included ‘module-owners’ who retain the rights to decide what goes into the code base of major open-source projects including JBoss, Apache, the Linux kernel and related tools, MySQL, XenSource, and PostgreSQL,” MacCormack said.

“We wanted this group because they are influential in terms of opinion, intelligent consumers of software licenses and involved in enterprise projects,” he added.

They are also in a position to hear the views of many developers and had probably thought deeply about the issues of license design and selection, he said, noting that “we did not target the top, ‘household name’ individuals who run the projects and get all the press, or the hundreds of contributors who contribute small amounts of code on a regular basis.”

Microsoft claims that free and open-source software violates 235 of its patents. Read more here.

The researchers sent out 354 e-mails between Feb. 28, 2007, and April 4, 2007. Of those, 332 reached their destination, from which 34 responses were received, giving a response rate of 11 percent.

Interviews were then conducted over the phone with those respondents, each lasting between 45 and 60 minutes. A common discussion guide was used for all, and no monetary participation incentive was offered, MacCormack said.

“We felt that the 34 interviews were more than sufficient to conduct exploratory research to identify the predominant developer opinions on the most critical issues,” he said.

The study found that most respondents use open-source licenses to tap into the open-source development approach for their projects, and that their focus is on developing a great product rather than a moral imperative to ensure that all software was “free.”

Most respondents also value the ability to build on the works of others and believe license incompatibility makes it harder to incorporate other people’s code into their own, he said.

Click here to read how the Open Source Initiative characterizes, rather than ranks, current licenses.

Developers want the flexibility to vary the license they use for their own code based on need and often choose licenses to increase adoption rather than to ensure the code is never used for commercial gain or proprietary purposes, the study found.

Many of the interviewees have worked on both open-source and proprietary software and value interaction between the two, with developers often exercising this flexibility to solve practical problems for customers, the study said.

The majority of developers also do not support any organization imposing its views on other developers or abridging other developer rights, while most developers are aligned with the Open Source Initiative’s open source definition, which focuses on allowing users to extend open-source creations but avoids mandating that users strictly adhere to the philosophies of upstream developers, the study found.

These findings show a much sharper divide in terms of what developers think about GPL 3 than did a recent poll by OpenLogic, which found that nearly half of the respondents believe that the upcoming GPL 3 will be good for open-source software, even though they are also concerned about the patent, device and digital rights management provisions in the recently released third draft of the license.

Click here to read more about why those open-source developers support GPL 3.

MacCormack was not surprised by any of the findings in his study, telling eWEEK that most developers who are involved in open-source projects are pragmatic individuals who just want to solve problems and develop robust solutions.

“So it is natural that most see a value in having commercial software firms exist—and are very happy to leverage the technology from these proprietary efforts,” he said. “I have done a lot of interviews with the open-source community over my academic life, and I have never found more than a small percent to be zealous about ‘all software being free,’ though I do think they worry over potential misuse of the patent system in software.”

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