The open source licensing war is over

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by | August 2, 2023

It’s time for the open source Rambos to stop fighting and agree that developers care more about software’s access and ease of use than the purity of its license.

The open source war is over, however much some want to continue soldiering on. Recently Meta (Facebook) released Llama 2, a powerful large language model (LLM) with more than 70 billion parameters. In the past, Meta had restricted use of its LLMs to research purposes, but with Llama 2, Meta opened it up; the only restriction is that it can’t be used for commercial purposes. Only a handful of companies have the computational horsepower to deploy it at scale (Google, Amazon, and very, very few others).

This means, of course, it’s not “open source” according to the Open Source Definition (OSD), despite Meta advertising it as such. This has a few open source advocates crying, Rambo style, “They drew first blood!” and “Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off!”, insistent that Meta stop calling Llama 2 “open source.” They’re right, in a pedantic sort of way, but they also don’t seem to realize just how irrelevant their concerns are. For years developers have been voting with their GitHub repositories to pick “open enough.” It’s not that open source doesn’t matter, but rather it has never mattered in the way some hoped or believed.

A brief history of open source time

More than 10 years ago, the trend toward permissive licensing was so pronounced that RedMonk analyst James Governor declared, “Younger [developers] today are about POSS—post open source software. [Screw] the license and governance, just commit to GitHub.” In response, people in the comments fretted and scolded, saying past trends like this had resulted in “epic clusterf—s” or that “promiscuous sharing w/out a license leads to software-transmitted diseases.”

And yet, millions of unlicensed GitHub repositories later, we haven’t entered the dark ages of software licensing. Open source, or “open enough,” software now finds its way into pretty much all software, however it ends up being licensed to the end user. Ideal? Perhaps not. But a fact of life? Yep.

In response, GitHub and others have devised ways to entice developers to pick open source licenses to govern their projects. As I wrote back in 2014, all these moves will likely help, but the reality is that they also won’t matter. They won’t matter because “open source” doesn’t really matter anymore. Not as some countercultural raging against the corporate software machine, anyway. All of this led me to conclude we’re in the midst of the post–open source revolution, a revolution in which software matters more than ever, but its licensing matters less and less.

You don’t have to like this, but the data to support this position is rife through GitHub repositories or the open source licensing trends that have been underway for 20 years. Everything has trended toward permissive, as-open-as-possible access to code, to the point that the underlying license is a lot less important than the ease with which we are able to access and use software.


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