API Licensing Commons Launched

According to TechCrunch, at Defrag Conference 2013, 3Scale Founder Steven Willmott and API Evangelist Kin Lane launched a service called API Commons, which aims to provide a simple and transparent tool for developers to freely design, share, and use application program interface (API) specifications and data models under Creative Commons licenses. This effort seeks to address the uncertainty of copyright interests in APIs, and the uneven licensing practices that apply to them.

The district court order in the recent Oracle v. Google case, issued on May 31, 2012, spoke to the protectability under copyright of certain APIs. However, the case is currently on appeal to the Federal Circuit, which may offer further guidance on copyright protection for APIs.  It has long been understood that copyright protection of schema, APIs and similar program specifications is thin.  Courts have not expressly and categorically opined that they are unprotectable, but that has been the working assumption of many in the software industry based on the teachings of Computer Assoc. V. Altai and Lotus v. Borland, the seminal software copyright cases of the 1990s.  (Lotus involved the copyright interest — or lack thereof — in a menuing heirarchy.)  If the API issue remains unclear, developers who use others’ API operate in a gray zone, uncertain as to whether licenses are necessary. Similarly, developers of the APIs may offer no express license to use them, assuming that it might not be necessary to do so.  

Obamacare Open Source Glitch

As if widespread and high-profile technical problems were not enough, an open source licensing controversy has added some heat to the already heavily criticized launch of Healthcare.gov, the US government’s website facilitating signups for the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. The Weekly Standard reports that the creators of the website apparently used portions of the DataTables script (dual licensed under GPL v.2 and the BSD license) without properly retaining copyright notices, in violation of the license terms. The software, written by Allan Jardine of SpryMedia, allegedly appear in the Healthcare.gov website script without any references to its author.

The Weekly Standard posting contains a comparison of code snippets that illustrate similarities between the script from Healthcare.gov and SpryMedia script. A SpryMedia representative expressed the intent to bring this violation of licensing terms to the attention of the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency in charge of Healthcare.org.  

While this incident is topical, it is also endemic of older and larger problems with non-compliance for open source client-side scripts (like Javascript), much of which is licensed under the (logically odd) GPL/BSD dual approach.  Because these scripts execute on the client side, they are distributed even when the server side code is not — leading to a commonly overlooked aspect of open source compliance.

Groklaw Shuts Down


The following posting appeared on Groklaw today: “The owner of Lavabit tells us that he’s stopped using email and if we knew what he knew, we’d stop too.  There is no way to do Groklaw without email. Therein lies the conundrum.” The complete post explains that Groklaw is shutting down due to concerns about email privacy.

This is such a shame.  Groklaw has been one of those resources that only a labor of love could produce.

German Lawsuit Results in Settlement for Breach of LGPL

adhoc dataservice GmbH has settled with Buhl Data Service GmbH, the developer of the WISO Mein Büro (My Office) enterprise application software.  Buhl agreed to pay €15,000 for violating the LGPL terms under which adhoc provides its FreeadhocUDF open source library (which includes various functions for UDF).   The settlement disposes of a court case that resulted in a January 2011 opinion from a lower court in Bochum, Germany, that the use of the FreeadhocUDF library in WISO Mein Büro 2009 violated the LGPL’s licensing terms. 

[I have had trouble verifying this item, and much of the original material is in German.  If I find more, I will update here.]

edX Releases xBlock MOOC Software under AGPL

edX, an organization sponsored by MIT and Harvard to make available educational content free of charge, and that developed software to serve content in MOOC (massive open online courses) environment, has made an open source release.  Its xBlock software, which enables developers to create course components, has been made available under Affero GPL here.  The choice of Affero will be meaningful, given the software is designed to serve up on-line services.

Perhaps this will also kickstart some companies to make available plug-and-play resources for private tutors and schools moving into the educational content space — a phenomenon that has been on the verge of happening for a while.

Open Source and Ocean Breezes

Robert Griffin, an economist with the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University has proposed creating open source software to gather data and control ocean-based turbines for wind generation.  He is proposing an open source wind energy model that predicts energy production, wind energy value and other key metrics associated with offshore wind energy.” 

The Natural Capital Project is a partnership among Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and the University of Minnesota.  The proposal is part of InVest, the “Integrated Valuation of Environmental Services and Tradeoffs” project.



Open Source Poetry

In yet another random variation on open source, this got funded on Kickstarter.  The author says that in a moment of boredom, some friends visisted Omegle, a website that connects the user to a random stranger via text, and asked about the meaning of life.  The Kickstarter page lists some of the answers and describes a project to collect them into a book.

It also says, “If we raise over $1500, I will vocode one of the poems from the book (on a stolen vocoder) and perform ambient music behind it, which will get sent as an MP3 to every backer at the $5 level and up.” This sounds more like a threat than a promise, to me.

Open Source, Please Indicate your National Origin

U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently issued an advisory letter paving the way for the US government to procure open source software solutions, and remain compliant with the requirements of government procurement regulations.  The CPB issues advisory rulings on country-of-origin questions, including whether products comply with “Buy American” requirements or the waivers allowed to them.  Although the advisory letter is not binding, it can guide courts or government agencies in making binding determinations.

The Buy American Act (41 U.S.C. 10) requires the United States government to give certain preferences to US-made products in its procurement.  This means that a determination that a product is made in the US makes it easier to sell to the US government.  But where a product is made can be a complex question.  This question arose for Talend, vendor of enterprise open source software solutions for data integration, data management, and enterprise application integration.  Talend’s business follows an “open core” model – Talend publishes the core software for its solution under GPL and Apache 2, but also provides solutions on a commercial basis.   Talend’s development process – not unlike that of many enterprise software companies – included steps that took place China, France, Ireland, Germany and the US.  

Under the Title III of the Trade Agreements Act, 19 USC 2511 (TAA), the US executive has the authority to waive waive certain  US domestic purchasing preference requirements , including BAA,  with respect to certain countries of origin — “Designated Countries” that give reciprocal treatment to US producers, such as under the Agreement on Government Procurement of the World Trade Organization.   Examples of these Designated Countries would be Germany and France.

19 USC 2518 (B) helps define a country of origin, saying, “An article is a product of a country or instrumentality only if (i) it is wholly the growth, product, or manufacture of that country or instrumentality, or (ii) in the case of an article which consists in whole or in part of materials from another country or instrumentality, it has been substantially transformed into a new and different article of commerce with a name, character, or use distinct from that of the article or articles from which it was so transformed.” 

Talend successfully argued that the development steps performed in the US, France and Germany constituted the “substantial transformation” of the product.  

Country of origin disputes are nothing new, and the CBP letter’s guidance goes beyond open source software to provide guidance generally on how to comply with procurement requirements for software.  However, according to Business Wire, “Country of Origin issues sometimes have been used as a pretext to make a case against the procurement of open source software.”  The open source community has long viewed the US as lagging behind other countries on adopting open source for government procurement.

The full text of the letter is here.


A Kerfuffle in OFA Tech

The Obama campaign of 2012 was known for its tech savvy.  Now that the election is over, a controversy is brewing between some of the programmers who helped build the technology tools for the campaign and the Obama for America (OFA) campaign organization.

The Obama campaign was assisted by the efforts of “Team Tech, a dedicated internal team of technology professionals who operated like an Internet startup.”  According to Ars Technica, one of the campaign’s killers apps was “Narwhal—a set of services that acted as an interface to a single shared data store for all of the campaign’s applications, making it possible to quickly develop new applications and to integrate existing ones into the campaign’s system.”

But now that the campaign is over, a “stark divide” has appeared between certain members of Team Tech and OFA regarding tools for collecting donations, email operation, and the campaign’s mobile app.  “When the campaign ended, these programmers wanted to put their work back into the coding community for other developers to study and improve upon. Politicians in the Democratic party felt otherwise, arguing that sharing the tech would give away a key advantage to the Republicans.”   “The team relied on open source frameworks like Rails [i.e. Ruby on Rails, a full-stack web application framework for the Ruby programming language], Flask [a web application framework], Jekyll [a static site generator] and Django [a web application framework].”

But the reporting on this issue has not made clear whether OFA has any actual obligation to share the code under copyleft requirements.  Perhaps it does not.  Building on top of open source platforms like Ruby on Rails does not carry any obligation to release source code for applications.  More likely, the disagreement is entirely one of philosophy – between an organization that does not want to enable its competitors, and software engineers who prefer to share — the same perennial philosophical divide between private corporations and the programmers they employ to leverage open source software.