Urbi is going open-source

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Gostai just announced that its implementation of the Urbiscript programming language is going to be open-sourced in May 2010. Urbiscript is a prototype-based interpreted language inspired from a mix of Lua, Smalltalk, Ruby and Javascript amongst others with many features dedicated to parallel programming.

I spent the whole 2008 year working on Urbiscript at Gostai with several very talented people, and I’m really happy to see the project we worked on released as open-source. I have some ideas of where I could use the Urbiscript language in place of compiled solutions. The licensing model will be a dual one: a free and GPL-compatible open-source license, or at your option a proprietary one for which you will have to pay. However, if you want to contribute to the code, there is a catch:

We are very excited at the idea of working with talented contributors. There will be one constraint, which is to agree to transfer the copyright of the contribution to Gostai. This is the only way to both keep a clear ownership of the licensing rights, and to ensure a centralized reviewing process that we believe is good to guarantee a high level of consistency for Urbi and associated software.

Gostai is not the only entity to require copyright transfer to incorporate contributed code: the Free Software Fundation (FSF) does the same thing for most of its projects. The alleged non-traceability and missing ownership information prevented the FSF from merging back XEmacs sources into Emacs: a few years ago, I heard Richard Stallman (in a heated argument with a XEmacs contributor) say that some pieces of code in XEmacs could not be traced back to their authors, and that the FSF could not take the risk of accepting code from an unknown origin into its repositories. The SCO vs. Linux case a few years later proved Richard right.

However, asserting that copyright transfer is the only way […] to ensure a centralized reviewing process is quite untrue. The Linux kernel does have a centralized reviewing process, where Linus Torvalds either checks the contributed code himself or trusts (possibly transitively) one of his appointed maintainers to do so after the code has been publicly reviewed. And Linus does not require any copyright transfer and is satisfied with the traceability now provided by the Signed-Off-By author information attached with every code change.

I am genuinely curious to see whether people will accept to transfer their copyright to Gostai so that the company can monetize their work, or whether alternate repositories with tainted free-software-only versions will flourish. In the Linux kernel world, “tainted” usually means that the open-source kernel has been contaminated with a proprietary (closed-source) module and thus cannot be trusted anymore. Here, “tainted” means that Gostai will be unable to incorporate the contributed code back into its proprietary version because those contributions might be labeled “open-source only”.

Anyway, I wish Gostai very good luck, and I am quite certain that the licensing situation will evolve in the future. I am eager to try the open-source version of Urbi on my hardware to benefit from its power and simplicity!

Edit 2010-07-20: Urbi is now open-source, and which a much better license than first envisioned and copyright does not need to be transferred to Gostai.

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