In Friday's blog post, I talked about a consultant's recommendation to use the Apache 2.0 license for open-source software development of the Veterans Affairs Department's VistA EHR—and how Apache conflicts with the general public license, or GPL, used by several established developers of open-source VistA EHRs.
Going public—or not
Today, let's talk about a long-running schism within the open-source software movement over license types.
A key feature of GPL is that it is "copy left," a tweak of copyright, which means users of GPL-licensed software agree to provide the software source code to subsequent users. Copy left also means that developers who use and distribute the software agree to put back into the communal software stew pot, free of charge, any code enhancements they make.
According to Gregory Vetter, co-director of the Institute for Intellectual Property and Information Law at the University of Houston Law Center, there is no one "right" open-source license type.
"There are many successful projects that are based on Apache-style licenses," he says. "There are many, many successful GPL-style projects."
The key difference between the Apache and GPL licenses is that Apache is "permissive" and, because of copy left, GPL is more restrictive in what developers can do with code drawn from the common pot. Under Apache, code from the pot can be distributed to a developer, who can use it to create an improved, proprietary product without the improvements needing to be put back into the pot.
GPL places the onus on a developer to socialize enhancements. That means giving improved code in any distributed versions back to the pot.
"It basically says you're obligated to not only make the source code available, but distribute without charging royalties for distributions," Vetter says.
According to the consultant working on the VA's open-source project, organizations with GPL-licensed VistA EHRs—Medsphere Systems and WorldVistA, for example—"will have to agree on 'dual licensing,' " Apache and GPL, to contribute software to the VA's Apache-licensed open-source project. If that doesn't happen, "forking," or having multiple, open-source VistA EHR projects, might occur.
Michael Doyle, executive chairman of Medsphere, says he's OK with the consultant's recommendation that the VA's VistA initiative adopt Apache 2.0.
"I think it's clear that now with the VA being involved with this and going open-source, the Apache license, with the VA behind it, will work," Doyle says.
The potential for forking—having dueling proprietary and copy left VistA versions emerge—is a risk with Apache, Doyle says, but forking is a risk with any open-source project. "I think the Apache license is going to allow innovation," he says, but "ultimately, I think what's going to happen is it's going to commoditize software and the differentiator is going to be service," and not proprietary bells and whistles.
WorldVistA president Dr. Nancy Anthracite said in an e-mail, "WorldVistA has not made any decisions yet about how it will respond to the proposed licensing plan….I can say we will not be adopting an Apache (2.0) license for the WorldVistA EHR code."
Follow Joseph Conn on Twitter: @MHJConn.
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