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OpenStreetMap contemplates licensing

By Jonathan Corbet
October 22, 2008
Maps are cool; there's no end of applications which can make good use of mapping data. There is plenty of map data around, but it's almost exclusively proprietary in nature. That makes this data hard to use with free applications; it's also inherently annoying. We, as taxpayers, own those streets; why should we have to pay somebody else to know where the streets are?

Your editor likes to grumble about such things; meanwhile, the OpenStreetMap project (OSM) is busily doing something about it. OSM has put together a database and a set of tools making it easy for anybody to enter location data with the intent of producing a free mapping database with global coverage. It is an ambitious project, to say the least, but it's working:

Right now on each and every day, 25,000km of roads gets added to the OpenStreetMap database, on the historical trend that will be over 200,000km per day by the end of 2009. And that doesn't include all the other data that makes OpenStreetMap the richest dataset available online.

OSM data is not limited to roads; just about any point or track of interest can be added to the database. If current trends continue, OSM could well grow into the most extensive geolocation database [OpenStreetMap] anywhere - free or proprietary. And those trends could well continue; one of the nice aspects of this kind of project is that no particular expertise is needed to contribute. All you need is a GPS receiver and some time; some OSM local groups have even acquired a set of receivers to lend out to interested volunteers. This is our planet, and we can all help to map it.

All this work raises an interesting question, though: under what license should this accumulated data be distributed? Currently, the OSM database is covered by the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. It is a copyleft-style license, requiring that derived products be made available under the same license. So, for example, if a GPS navigator manufacturer were to include an enhanced version of the OSM database in its products, it would have to release the enhanced version under the CC by-SA license.

The OSM project is not happy with this license, though, and is looking to make a change. The attribution requirement is ambiguous in this context; do users need to credit every OSM contributor? Does making a plot of OSM data with added data layered on top create a derived product? But the scariest question is a different one: can the CC by-SA license cover the OSM database at all?

Copyright law covers creative expression, not facts. The information in the OSM database is almost entirely factual in nature; one cannot copyright the location of a street corner. So what OSM is trying to protect is not the individual locations, but the database as a whole. Copyright law does allow for the protection of databases, but that law is far more complex than the law for pure creative works, and it varies far more between jurisdictions. Europe has a specific (though much-derided) database right, the US has far weaker database protections, and other parts of the planet lack this protection altogether. So it may well be that, if some evil corporation decides to appropriate the OSM database for its own nefarious, proprietary purposes, there will be nothing that the OSM project can do about it.

So the project is thinking of making a switch to the Open Database License (ODbL), which is still being developed. It, too, is a copyleft-style license, but it is crafted to make use of whatever database protection is available in a given jurisdiction. To that end, the ODbL is explicitly structured as a contract between the database owner and the user. In any jurisdiction where database rights are not recognized under copyright law, the contractual nature of the ODbL should provide a legal basis to go after license violators.

But the use of contract law muddies the water considerably; there are good reasons why free software licenses are carefully written to avoid that path. Contracts are only valid if they are explicitly and voluntarily entered into by all parties. If the OSM cannot show that a license violator agreed to abide by the license, it has no case under contract law. The project has a plan to address this problem:

To ensure that potential users are aware of and agree to the contract terms, we are proposing to require a click-through agreement before downloading data. (All registered users would agree to this on signing up so will not need a further click-through on each download.)

Registration and clickthrough licensing are obnoxious, to say the least. But, in any case, the only people who will go through that process are those who obtain the database directly from OpenStreetMap. The ODbL allows redistribution, naturally, and it does not require that explicit agreement be obtained from recipients of the database. So it is hard to see an outcome where copies of the database lacking a "signed" contract do not proliferate. Additionally, reliance on contract law makes it very hard to get injunctive relief, weakening any enforcement efforts considerably.

The ODbL includes an anti-DRM measure; if a vendor locks down a copy of the database with some sort of DRM scheme, that vendor must also make an unrestricted copy available. This license tries to distinguish between "collective databases" (which are not derived works) and "derivative databases" (which are). Drawing layers on top of an OSM-based map is a collective work; tracing lines from such a map is a derivative work. It is, in general, a complex bit of work.

It is complex enough that a number of OSM contributors are wondering if it's all worth it. Jordan Hatcher is one of the authors of the ODbL, and he supports its use with OSM, but even he understands the concerns that some people have:

The [Science Commons] point is that all this sort of stuff can be a real pain, and isn't what you are really doing is wanting to create and manipulate factual data? Why spend all the time on this when the innovation happens in what you can do with the data, and not with trying to protect the data in the first place.

There is an active group with OSM which is opposed to this kind of licensing and would, in fact, rather just get down to the task of collecting and distributing the data. They express themselves in terms like this:

One thing I really love about OSM is the pragmatic, un-political approach: You don't give us your data, fine, then we create our own and you can shove it.

Not: You don't give us your data, fine, then we create a complex legal licensing framework that will ultimately get you bogged down in so many requests by prospective users who would like to use our data and yours but cannot and you will sooner or later have to release your data according to the terms we dictate and then we will have won and the world will be a better place.

These contributors would rather that OSM release its data into the public domain - or something very close to that. Rather than put together a complicated license, they prefer to just publish their data for anybody to use as they see fit. There have been all of the usual discussions which resemble any "GPL vs. BSD" licensing flame war one has ever seen - except that the OSM folks appear to be a very polite crowd. It comes down to the usual question: will the OSM database become more complete and useful if those who extend it are forced to contribute back their changes?

The public domain contingent clearly does not believe that any improvements to the database obtained via licensing constraints will be worth the trouble. So it seems likely that there will be some sort of fork involving the creation of a smaller, purely public-domain OSM database. It may well be an in-house fork, with the public domain data being merged into the larger, more restrictively licensed database for distribution. Regardless of how that goes, this split raises issues of its own: how are the two databases to be kept distinct in the face of cooperative additions and edits?

Any relicensing of the database also brings up another interesting question: what to do about all of the existing data, which may or may not be copyrighted by those who contributed or edited it? The license change may well require a process of getting assent from all contributors and purging data obtained from those who do not agree. This proposed timeline shows how the project is thinking about working through this task. It is hard to imagine this process going entirely smoothly.

The OSM community clearly has a set of thorny issues to work out. Given that, it's not surprising that this process has already been dragged out over the better part of a year. How this issue is eventually resolved will certainly serve as an example - not necessarily a good example - for other projects working on free compilations of factual data. Let us hope that OSM can come to a solution which lets this project continue to grow and generate a valuable database that we all will benefit from.

Comments (46 posted)

Fedora and long term support

By Jake Edge
October 17, 2008

The news that Wikipedia was in the process of switching away from Red Hat and Fedora—and to Ubuntu—has stirred up some Fedora folks. The relatively short, 13 month support cycle for Fedora releases was fingered as a major part of the problem in a gigantic thread on the fedora-devel mailing list. Some would like to see Fedora be supported for longer, so that it could be used in production environments, but that is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Fedora has set out to do.

The idea of supporting Fedora beyond the standard "two releases plus one month", which should generally yield 13 months, is not new. It was, after all, the idea behind the Fedora Legacy project. Unfortunately, Fedora Legacy ceased operations at the end of 2006, largely due to a lack of interested package maintainers. So, calls for a "long term support" (LTS) version of Fedora are met with a fair amount of skepticism.

Just such a call went up in response to the Wikipedia news. Patrice Dumas outlined the need:

[...] it seems to me that a true Fedora LTS is missing, that would allow those who want things that are new, including for testing but cannot afford changing everything each year (servers for example or user desktops). It seems to me that fedora ends up being used almost exclusively as single user desktop, so that testing of other functionalities is likely to be less widespread.

Fedora is not meant for production use, nor for those who cannot upgrade at least yearly. It has an entirely different mission, which Jon Stanley sums up:

Well, in all fairness, Fedora's stated goal is to advance the state of free software. You get that by being bleeding-edge. Unfortunately, being bleeding edge also means not being suitable for production environments - these are two fundamentally incompatible goals. This is why Red Hat Linux split into two - Fedora and RHEL. RHEL is a derivative distribution of Fedora.

Many believe that folks who want "Fedora LTS" would be better served by Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) or, for those that do not want to pay for a distribution with support, an RHEL derivative such as CentOS or Scientific Linux. But those don't have the package diversity available with Fedora. A stable release would also want to freeze major packages at a particular version—only backporting security fixes into that version—which is definitely not what is done with Fedora while it is being supported. Dumas wants to see something that finds a middle ground:

Fedora legacy (or fedora lts) would not be the same than centos. Maybe a Centos + repository with more recent stuff would be, but currently I think that there is something in the middle between fedora and centos that is missing.

The Extra Packages for Enterprise Linux (EPEL) project is meant to help fill that gap, by maintaining additional packages—beyond what Red Hat maintains—for RHEL and compatible distributions. Typically, though, those packages will also be held at a version level that will, with time, grow rather obsolete, at least to those who want to more closely follow the upstream project. And, of course, there aren't as many packages available for the enterprise distributions, even with EPEL, as there are for Fedora.

It would seem the classic tension between "bleeding edge" and stable as described by Stanley. Though it isn't clear how it would solve that problem, there are calls for reviving Fedora Legacy. There are few opposed to the idea of continuing Fedora support—if enough people can be found to do it—but the implementation details seem to bog things down. There is a bit of a "chicken and egg" problem in that attracting package maintainers is hard to do without a project to point to, but convincing the Fedora Engineering Steering Committee (FESCo) that it is worthwhile without having those maintainers will be difficult.

One of the sticking points is the availability of infrastructure—servers and bandwidth primarily—for any nascent legacy project to use. The Fedora board is seen as being resistant to allowing the use of the Fedora infrastructure for such a project. In response to someone who pointed out that the board's approval is not required, Dumas disagrees:

When it requires cooperation with the infrastructure, it does. It is also possible to start something external like rpmfusion, but the amount of work is very big. My proposal only made sense if the economies of scale realized by working inside the fedora project were realized.

Still, if somebody provides the infrastructure, sure I'll try to help with a project similar than the one I proposed, but I cannot myself do anything for the infrastructure part.

There is also the question of what kind of guarantees a legacy project would make about how long it would support older releases. Dumas and others seem to be in favor of essentially no commitment, maintainers would continue supporting their packages for as long as they wished. While there is some attraction to that idea—it certainly reduces the number of maintainers required—it is unclear that it actually provides a useful service. The idea that some security fixes are better than none is attractive, but David Woodhouse cautions against that view:

If we present the _appearance_ of a distro with security updates, while in fact there are serious security issues being unfixed, then that is _much_ worse than the current "That distro is EOL. Upgrade before you get hacked" messaging.

For anything to have the Fedora name on it, it _must_ have guaranteed security fixes for at least the highest priority issues.

As the original Fedora Legacy project wound down, it left just this kind of impression by promising support, but often not delivering it. For several years, updates for serious security problems were delivered late, if at all. Any new effort in that direction would have to be very clear about what it was delivering and how it planned to get the job done. A project that offered few, if any, guarantees would not be seen as something very useful, but making guarantees that don't get met is far worse.

While there are clearly Fedora users that would be interested in hanging on to their operating system for longer than one year, it isn't clear that there are enough of them—and, more importantly, enough maintainers—to make a legacy project successful. Agreement on the goal of the project, along with the promises it would make to adopters is important. It is difficult to see how the Fedora powers-that-be could allocate resources to such a project without those things. As Shmuel Siegel points out:

You are looking for infrastructure support from Fedora without indicating that there is a benefit to Fedora. Supply without demand is no more useful than demand without supply. Since Fedora views itself as "the cutting edge distro", you have an uphill PR fight. Give the Fedora project a reason to spend some of their limited resources on you. At least let them know your target audience and why they would be interested.

At least at this point, it doesn't seem like a revival of Fedora Legacy is in the cards, which leaves the problem unaddressed. Perhaps adding enough additional packages to EPEL will allow CentOS to truly become "Fedora LTS". It should be noted that while the original concern that LTS users might be switching to Ubuntu could well be true, Ubuntu LTS doesn't have a solution to the problem of package versions slowly getting obsolete either. Newer packages and stability are fundamentally at odds—trying to solve that problem is probably far too large of a job for any community distribution.

Comments (114 posted)

A tale of two conferences

By Jonathan Corbet
October 22, 2008
Like many communities, the Linux community depends heavily on conferences as a way to help our developers and users know each other and work well together. We make highly effective use of electronic communications, but there is truly no substitute for occasionally getting together, sharing a beer or three, and engaging in some high-bandwidth discussion. So it stands to reason we want our events to be as productive and useful as possible, especially given the expense of participating in them.

Your editor recently had the fortune of attending, over the course of one week, two conferences which are arguably the oldest and the newest in our community. They were both interesting events, but they were very different in their organization and attendance. Both show both strengths and weaknesses in our organization of face-to-face events.

Arguably, the first Linux-related event ever was Linux-Kongress 1994. That gathering brought together developers working on the Linux kernel for the first time; it played host to a large portion of the (quite small) development community. For a period of time thereafter, Linux-Kongress was the development event for people working at or near the kernel level. It didn't take too long for other conferences (notably Linux Expo in the US) to grab some of the spotlight, but, unlike Linux Expo, Linux-Kongress is still an active conference.

The 2008 event, in Hamburg, Germany, was well organized and a lot of fun; it was a pleasant gathering of a part of the community which your editor visits far too rarely. It was a technical conference for technical people, with a number of well-known developers present. But it must be said: Linux-Kongress is a small and relatively obscure event in 2008. There were maybe 200 attendees; much of the northern European development community was absent. Even some developers based in Hamburg declined to attend. The quality of the talks was not uniformly good, though some were excellent. And, in stark contrast to the recent Linux Plumbers Conference, it's hard to point at much work that got done. For something that was once the Linux development gathering, Linux-Kongress has clearly come down in the world.

It is interesting to observe that Europe, while being the home to large numbers of free software developers, lacks a definitive development conference. That is not to say that no interesting events happen there; GUADEC and Akademy are probably the biggest desktop conferences, and the upcoming combined event is something to look forward to. But developers looking for a pan-European, Linux-oriented conference will not find one. LinuxConf.eu, a combination of the UKUUG and Linux-Kongress events held in Cambridge last year, offered the potential to become such an event, but the LinuxConf.eu idea appears to have stalled for now.

From Hamburg, your editor flew straight to New York City, where the Linux Foundation's End-User Summit was held. This event, happening for the first time, differs greatly from Linux-Kongress in many ways. To begin with, it was an invitation-only event, and one which explicitly excluded the press (which is why there have been no LWN articles from there). It was also intended to host a mixture of developers and users, and to allow them to talk to each other. These characteristics led to a different sort of conference experience.

We do not run an invitation-only community; excluding people from our conferences seems to run counter to the inclusive atmosphere we normally try to encourage. The invitation-only nature of some Linux Foundation events naturally leads to complaints. We do not run an invitation-only community; excluding people from our conferences seems to run counter to the inclusive atmosphere we normally try to encourage. The Linux Foundation's reasoning here is easy to understand, though: many of the targeted end users (who represent mainly the financial industry in New York) have a hard time talking about what they are doing in any setting. In an open conference with press in attendance, those people will simply keep their mouths closed - if they show up at all.

The user community represented by the financial industry is important; they are a significant part of the business which keeps the enterprise distributions going. Even now, they are highly sought after as customers. It is important to know what they are thinking and what their biggest difficulties with Linux are. In the absence of an event like the End User Summit, this information will only be communicated directly to the enterprise distributors under a non-disclosure agreement. An invitation-only summit is fundamentally exclusive at one level, but it does help the development community (as opposed to one or two companies) get a sense for what this user community is thinking.

So what are they thinking? They feel some stress between the stability of enterprise distributions and the desire to have the features developed by the community in recent years. They want good tracing mechanisms, but do not necessarily need the dynamic tracing provided by tools like DTrace or SystemTap. They like Linux because its broad hardware support frees them from reliance on any specific hardware vendor. They are very interested in work on next-generation filesystems. Some of them, at least, very much want to better understand how our development process works and, possibly, participate in it. See the Linux Foundation's press release for a summary of what was discussed there.

It was a productive gathering, especially once the CEOs got off the stage and the attendees were able to talk to each other. But it points out another thing that we, as a community, lack: there are few forums where developers and users can get together and learn from each other. Developers tend to prefer the company of other developers; convincing them to go to more user-oriented events can be a challenge. So the closest thing we have to a combined user/developer event is the single-vendor conferences held by companies like Red Hat and Novell. Those, needless to say, are not the most community-oriented gatherings. They are not the best way to learn what our users are thinking.

The proposed LinuxCon event, to be co-located with the 2009 Linux Plumbers Conference, may help to fill in this gap somewhat.

Our community is blessed with a wealth of interesting gatherings worldwide. But that doesn't mean that we can't do better. Whether the subject is a true pan-European Linux gathering, user-oriented conferences, or something else altogether, there are always opportunities to find ways to help our community be more cohesive and productive. The trick is to expand communications to a broader community - as seen in our newest conference - while growing the open collaborative spirit exemplified by our oldest one.

Comments (14 posted)

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