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InnerSource Licensing

Chamindra de Silva

Chamindra de Silva - Citi

Presentation by Chamindra de Silva to FINOS Members Meeting on June 15 2023.
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Hello everyone, my name is Chamindra and I am an InnerSource Product Owner and Solution Architect at Citi. I am also a co-lead of the FINOS InnerSource Special Interest Group.

For those who are not aware InnerSource, it is the application of Open Source principles and working culture within the boundary of an enterprise. Large enterprises in particular suffer from many organizational knowledge silos and open source culture can provide a lot of benefit to improve engineering quality and reduce cost through reuse, though those product might never venture outside the boundaries of that institution.

Before joining Citi I led two open source projects in humanitarian response and education sector and was a committer to Apache Web Services, so I had some exposure to open source and the Apache Way going into the Banking Industry.

But after becoming an InnerSource project lead, I understood that there are nuances in InnerSource that make it different from open source and it needs to be considered in its own right. In fact, I have been exposed to IP violation due to a lack of clarify between InnerSource and Open Source

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My agenda for today is to explain why we a need common set of InnerSource licenses and to give you a demo of a tool we have created that can provide you with an appropriate InnerSource license for you needs

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The InnerSource Special Interest Group (SIG) in FINOS seeks to setup a safe space for talking about running an InnerSource project in your Financial institution. There many projects in finance that will always remain behind closed doors but that does not mean they cannot benefit from the open source way of doing things. The InnerSource SIG is a place you can learn from others in the finance domain on how they run such projects and come up with a set of common standards and best practices. It is also closely tied to the InnerSource Commons organization which is a major custodian of the InnerSource practices

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Open source would not exist today if not for the strong licensing leadership by the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and Open Source Initiative (OSI), encoded and supported by copyright law. Both used copyright law as the basis of open source licensing and though they were different in philosophy they were very similar in practice. This does not exist in the same way for InnerSource programs

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Whilst advocating for open source in Sri Lanka and Asia in the 2000s, there was a plethora of licenses developers had to understand and we had to educate developers on the may varieties of commercial and open source licenses to help them understand what they could and could not do. This was not always trivial. The viral nature of GPL v2 vs v3 for example is not the easiest thing to translate from legal terms!

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Eventually, it helped that open source consolidated into a few key licenses such as GPL, MIT, Apache, BSD, LGPL. It reduced the effort required to explain to developers what they could and could not do with software and eventually the developers got comfortable with these licenses.

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The advantage of popular open source licenses is that they often have a case history in court that can be called up to defend a product. There are groups such as the Software Freedom Conservancy that deal with violations so there is a form of shared protection

Popularly breeds familiarity and developers need to spend less time trying to decipher licenses and trying to understand what is permissible when using of the software. In a corporate context it means less legal cost with regard to protection and liability. Especially compared with developing and enforcing your own license.

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Unfortunately there is no similar set of licenses for InnerSource for companies to easily adopt.

They need to spend money to define an unproven license for their InnerSource products, and it might be a struggle to defend their IP in the first court case.

There is confusion between employees and vendors on the difference between InnerSource and open source and what is permissive use due to lack of popular licenses.

This ambiguity can result in breaches if people mistake InnerSource for open source in financial institutions

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Terms can differ between InnerSource and open source:

First, boundary conditions are a key area. There is haziness on where exactly the boundary lies. Is it with your employees? With subsidiaries? When vendors are involved this can vary.

Second, the copyright holder is always the organization, so the incentive mechanism for the author is different. They cannot reference this contribution for their CV, so while career progression is a motivation when contributing to open source this might not be possible for InnerSource.

Sometimes, in finance there is sometimes an anti-attribution pattern: a need to not be affiliated with the code.

Third, in finance we look carefully at security vulnerabilities when sharing code and data.

Finally, you might not be able to provide an "as-is" warranty waiver. Often within a corporate structure you expect those creating software to take some responsibility to maintaining it as often the teams are funded.

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From open consultation, we concluded that we do need a popular set of licenses similar to Creative Commons and a tool to create it. We gathered existing InnerSource licenses and performed interviews with organizations that have done InnerSource before.

From this, we arrived at a set of initial clauses.

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Given here are some of those clauses that we discussed:

Scope - defines what needs to be protected. Nowadays, data such as AI training sets can become be included.

Boundary - we needed to clearly define where the boundary for InnerSource lies and it varies by the sensitivity of the project. It can be just within the employees of the organization or even extended as far as partners and vendors.

Redistribution - determines how distribution is allowed. If it is a centrally governed project they might want to control the quality of the modified code and so would want re-distribution to happen centrally.

Attribution - is different to open source as the organization is always the copyright holder and you need to find a way to attribute the authors in some other way.

Warranty and Support - you might not be allowed to provide as-is warranties as that could represent an organizational risk. Instead you might need to offer a warranty period so that others in the organization can be assured security flaws will be fixed and that they don't find themselves in a critical situation without support.

Liability is different when the sharing is happening between contracted employees of the same organization.

Finally with ChatGPT and large language models (LLMs) generally accessing both open source and InnerSource repositories, we have questions around the principles of some of the licenses. Due to the nature of the algorithms things like sources and attribution of derivative works cannot be traced. In fact this might make InnerSource more important. While it is hard to enforce and prove this in an open source context, there may be some way to do this in an InnerSource context

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The InnerSource license generator is a simple tool that takes these clauses and generates a file for your project. It is constructed by assembling different license clause options. We are working towards a fixed set of licenses similar to Creative Commons. At the moment, we don't have enough data points but hopefully by engaging more use of the tool we will be able to come to a well-defined set of license definitions.

The tool is an alpha version and available as open source for contribution and improvement. As a next step we do need to do a legal review of the clauses before we make it available. As it presently stands you can download licenses but you will need to review with your legal team before you apply them internally. But that's still better than dealing with N number of separate contracts articulating the different license options with different vendors and partners.

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In summary the financial industry and the larger corporate world can benefit from a set of common, well-defined InnerSource licenses to protect corporate IP whilst encouraging internal sharing and open source culture.

LLMs and ChatGPT type tools might actually make InnerSource licenses more important given the challenge presented by LLMs in the open source world toward attribution, copyleft etc.

As a call to action we would like to encourage your participation and contribution to the InnerSource SIG and license working group.

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