Google’s WebM, an open and royalty-free media format based on the VP8 video codec, was amongst the highlights coming out of Google I/O 2010.  After examining the software license, open source pundits questioned whether WebM should, in theory, be classified open source software. The larger question is why Google allowed this debate to occur in the first place, and what it means for your organization when evaluating an “open source product”.

Google has positioned WebM as an open alternative to the popular H.264 video codec.  Browser vendors from Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera, Adobe and of course Google have signaled support for WebM based on the open nature of WebM.  The royalty free angle surely helped in this decision.  As would be expected of an open source project, Google released the source code to WebM.

Open source in theory or practice?
Google did not however utilize an Open Source Initiative (OSI) approved license for WebM. As such, in theory, WebM could not be considered open source software under the open source definition (OSD). ComputerWorld UK columnist and OSI board member Simon Phipps writes:

“Many government and business policies around the world point to OSI when defining what is acceptable as “open source”. The OSD remains the “gold standard” and we all have much to lose if it is subverted.”

The WebM FAQ explains Google desire to utilize a standard BSD or Apache license, but deciding to utilize a BSD-based license in order to meet Google’s needs:

“The Apache license is somewhat similar in effect to this license. The main reason it was not used is that filing patent litigation against someone using the Apache 2 license only terminates patent rights granted under the license. Whoever filed the litigation would still be able to use the software they are suing over and still be in compliance with the license. This license, however, terminates all rights when patent litigation is filed. Rather than modify the Apache license to meet our needs, which would probably lead to significant confusion, we went with the simpler approach of a BSD style license + patent provision.”

Bruce Perens, author of The Cathedral & Bazaar, decided to submit the WebM license to the OSI for review and approval as he wishes to create a derivate work based on it.

Google’s Open Source Programs Manager, Chris DiBona, responded asking the OSI to delay a review of WebM. Dibona wrote:

“Please hold off on submitting this while we determine certain compatibility issues internally at google….I would also point out that we’re uncomfortable with making license proliferation worse and in the event we do submit it, we will want a couple of changes to how OSI does licenses.

1) We will want a label explicitly deterring the use of the license.
2) We will want the bod (board of directors) list archives open for any discussions of webm. We are not comfortable with OSI being closed.
3) We need to know OSI’s current corporate status…..”

Responses to DiBona quickly addressed Google’s three requirements as being non issues.

Suppose for a minute that Microsoft has followed Google’s approach with WebM licensing, and further, required the OSI agree to “changes to how OSI does licenses” as a precursor to submitting a license for OSI review and approval.  Microsoft would have been lynched by virtually every open source pundit.

Google is treated quite differently by open source pundits because Google contributes much to open source projects and generally tries to release source code under an OSI-approved license whenever possible - namely, when it suits Google’s business needs.

Wither the “open source” brand?
There is however a larger issue at hand.  As open source becomes mainstream, vendors are under pressure to market their offerings using the “open source” brand to the highest degree possible without misleading customers.

For better or worse, an OSI-approved license has become the de facto requirement for vendors calling themselves or their products “open source”.  When Google, one of the largest supporters of open source, goes out and purposefully circumvents the OSI, what signal does this send to other vendors?  How important is using an OSI-approved license likely to be in the future if other vendors follow Google’s lead?

If using an OSI-approved license no longer becomes the precursor to utilizing the “open source” brand, enterprises, or more importantly, developers who often make the initial decision to use an open source product, risk using purported open source software which may be at odds with the enterprise’s legal policies.

I completely understand that Google felt it’s business needs were not met using an existing OSI-approved license – even if some suggest otherwise.  I also understand why Google would want to limit its patent offer in the WebM license to any user until that user decides to sue another user for patent infringement related to WebM usage.  Google has every right to make business decisions and utilize a license closely aligned with those decisions. However, Google, for all its open source credibility, should be expected to work with, not around, established open source processes.  If the process is broken, help fix it, not make it worse.

Going forward, it becomes even more critical for you to validate that software carrying the “open source” marketing badge aligns with your expectations.

Follow me on twitter at: SavioRodrigues PS: I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.”