Where licence diversity may become problematic

Tracking the COVID-19

Published on: 07/10/2020
Last update: 20/11/2020
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Jesus M. Gonzalez-Barahona, well known in open source circles and frequent GitHub contributor, maintains an illustrative list of tools for COVID-19 contact tracing, which are in whole or in part distributed as free, open source software.

The list covers so far 21 tools from various EU and third countries:

Open licences applied for software distribution are extremely diverse: the 13 European listed projects use in majority the EUPL (Netherlands, Finland, Portugal) and the quite similar in spirit MPL (Estonia, Spain, France). More permissive licences are used in Germany and Austria (Apache) or in Ireland and Czech Republic (MIT). “Strong copyleft” licences are less used: one use of the GPLv3 in Poland and one use of the AGPLv3 in Italy. Strangely, the Latvian application Apturi COVID is distributed under the terms of CC-by-sa 4.0 International, which are more convenient for data than software.

The list is exemplative and may be enlarged in the near future with projects like Quarano (Germany – also distributed under the EUPL), or with the Belgian Coronalert, where the licence is still unclear (it is said “open source” by the licensor SCIENSANO, but in fact it is not, because it is "non-transferable, personal, non-commercial" and can even be cancelled).

The list demonstrates that all COVID tracing licensors are not familiar with open source licensing and the risk is that, especially when using non-interoperable “strong copyleft” licences like the AGPL or GPL, or by licensing under terms that are not really open source (in the case of Coronalert) or convenient for software, the diversity of licences presents incompatibilities that can restrict the dissemination, free reproduction and reuse of best practices. The use of "officially open source" permissive (MIT, Apache) or interoperable licences (EUPL, MPL) must be recommended for speeding up the sharing and reuse of COVID tracking innovation.

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