|Understanding Open Source & Free Software Licensing|
|author||Andrew M. St. Laurent|
|summary||A worthwhile introduction to open source licensing|
Those familiar with the O'Reilly product offerings have no doubt seen or purchased one or more their Pocket Reference series. These 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 such pocket guides for open source and free software licensing. Open source licenses and their legal interpretation, though, 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 Apache/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 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 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.
You can purchase Understanding Open Source & Free Software Licensing from bn.com. (You might also be interested in Peter Wayner's review of Lawrence Rosen's book on the same topic, Open Source Licensing .) Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.