In the recent FOSDEM 2016 SDR Devroom, the Q&A session following a presentation on OpenAirInterface touched the topic of its controversial licensing. As I happen to be involved deeply with Free Software licensing and Free Software telecom topics, I thought I might have some things to say about this topic. Unfortunately the Q&A session was short, hence this blog post.
As a side note, the presentation was actually certainly the least technical presentation in all of the FOSDEM SDR track, and that with a deeply technical audience. And probably the only presentation at all at FOSDEM talking a lot about "Strategic Industry Partners".
Let me also state that I actually have respect for what OAI/OSA has been and still is doing. I just don't think it is attractive to the Free Software community - and it might actually not be Free Software at all.
OpenAirInterface / History
Within EURECOM, a group around Prof. Raymond Knopp has been working on a Free Software implementation of all layers of the LTE (4G) system known as OpenAirInterface. It includes the physical layer and goes through to the core network.
The OpenAirInterface code was for many years under GPL license (GPLv2, other parts GPLv3). Initially the SVN repositories were not public (despite the license), but after some friendly mails one (at least I) could get access.
I've read through the code at several points in the past, it often seemed much more like a (quick and dirty?) proof of concept implementation to me, than anything more general-purpose. But then, that might have been a wrong impression on my behalf, or it might be that this was simply sufficient for the kind of research they wanted to do. After all, scientific research and FOSS often have a complicated relationship. Researchers naturally have their papers as primary output of their work, and software implementations often are more like a necessary evil than the actual goal. But then, I digress.
Now at some point in 2014, a new organization the OpenAirInterface Software Association (OSA) was established. The idea apparently was to get involved with the tier-1 telecom suppliers (like Alcatel, Huawei, Ericsson, ...) and work together on an implementation of Free Software for future mobile data, so-called 5G technologies.
Telecom Industry and Patents
In case you don't know, the classic telecom industry loves patents. Pretty much anything and everything is patented, and the patents are heavily enforced. And not just between Samsung and Apple, or more recently also Nokia and Samsung - but basically all the time.
One of the big reasons why even the most simple UMTS/3G capable phones are so much more expensive than GSM/2G is the extensive (and expensive) list of patents Qualcomm requires every device maker to license. In the past, this was not even a fixed per-unit royalty, but the license depended on the actual overall price of the phone itself.
So wanting to work on a Free Software implementation of future telecom standards with active support and involvement of the telecom industry obviously means contention in terms of patents.
The existing GPLv2/GPLv3 license of the OpenAirInterface code of course would have meant that contributions from the patent-holding telecom industry would have to come with appropriate royalty-free patent licenses. After all, of what use is it if the software is free in terms of copyright licensing, but then you still have the patents that make it non-free.
Now the big industry of course wouldn't want to do that, so the OSA decided to re-license the code-base under a new license.
As we apparently don't yet have sufficient existing Free Software licenses, they decided to create a new license. That new license (the OSA Public License V1.0 not only does away with copyleft, but also does away with a normal patent grant.
This is very sad in several ways:
- license proliferation is always bad. Major experts and basically all major entities in the Free Software world (FSF, FSFE, OSI, ...) are opposed to it and see it as a problem. Even companies like Intel and Google have publicly raised concern about license Proliferation.
- abandoning copyleft. Many people particularly from a GNU/Linux background would agree that copyleft is a fair deal. It ensures that everyone modifying the software will have to share such modifications with other users in a fair way. Nobody can create proprietary derivatives.
- taking away the patent grant. Even the non-copyleft Apache 2.0 License the OSA used as template has a broad patent grant, even for commercial applications. The OSA Public License has only a patent grant for use in research context
In addition to this license change, the OSA also requires a copyright assignment from all contributors.
What kind of effect does this have in case I want to contribute?
- I have to sign away my copyright. The OSA can at any given point in time grant anyone whatever license they want to this code.
- I have to agree to a permissive license without copyleft, i.e. everyone else can create proprietary derivatives of my work
- I do not even get a patent grant from the other contributors (like the large Telecom companies).
So basically, I have to sign away my copyright, and I get nothing in return. No copyleft that ensures other people's modifications will be available under the same license, no patent grant, and I don't even keep my own copyright to be able to veto any future license changes.
My personal opinion (and apparently those of other FOSDEM attendees) is thus that the OAI / OSA invitation to contributions from the community is not a very attractive one. It might all be well and fine for large industry and research institutes. But I don't think the Free Software community has much to gain in all of this.
Now OSA will claim that the above is not true, and that all contributors (including the Telecom vendors) have agreed to license their patents under FRAND conditions to all other contributors. It even seemed to me that the speaker at FOSDEM believed this was something positive in any way. I can only laugh at that ;)
FRAND (Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory) is a frequently invoked buzzword for patent licensing schemes. It isn't actually defined anywhere, and is most likely just meant to sound nice to people who don't understand what it really means. Like, let's say, political decision makers.
In practise, it is a disaster for individuals and small/medium sized companies. I can tell you first hand from having tried to obtain patent licenses from FRAND schemes before. While they might have reasonable per-unit royalties and they might offer those royalties to everyone, they typically come with ridiculous minimum annual fees.
For example let's say they state in their FRAND license conditions you have to pay 1 USD per device, but a minimum of USD 100,000 per year. Or a similarly large one-time fee at the time of signing the contract.
That's of course very fair to the large corporations, but it makes it impossible for a small company who sells maybe 10 to 100 devices per year, as the 100,000 / 10 then equals to USD 10k per device in terms of royalties. Does that sound fair and Non-Discriminatory to you?
OAI/OSA are trying to get a non-commercial / research-oriented foot into the design and specification process of future mobile telecom network standardization. That's a big and difficult challenge.
However, the decisions they have taken in terms of licensing show that they are primarily interested in aligning with the large corporate telecom industry, and have thus created something that isn't really Free Software (missing non-research patent grant) and might in the end only help the large telecom vendors to uni-directionally consume contributions from academic research, small/medium sized companies and individual hackers.