Non-discrimination is a core value of open source

By Eric Raymond

Today I learned that something called the Lerna project has added a codicil to its MIT license denying the use of its software to a long list of organizations because it disagrees with a political choice those organizations have made.

Speaking as one of the original co-authors of the Open Source Definition, I state a fact. As amended, the Lerna license is no longer conformant with the OSD. It has specifically broken compliance with clause 5 (“No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups”).

Accordingly, Lerna has defected from the open-source community and should be shunned by anyone who values the health of that community. I will not contribute to their project, and will urge others not to, until and unless this change is rescinded.

We wrote Clause 5 into the OSD for a good reason. Exclusions and carve-outs like Lerna’s, if they became common, would create tremendous uncertainty about the ethics and even the legality of code re-use. Suppose I were to take a snippet from Lerna code and re-use it in a project that (possibly without my knowledge) was deployed by one of the prescribed organizations; what would my ethical and legal exposure be?

It gets worse. Suppose I write code that happened to be identical, or very similar to, portions of Lerna? Could anyone make a case that I was in violation of their license? It is definitely unsafe when a question like that turns on facts of knowledge and intent no one outside a putative violator’s skull can know for certain.

The Lerna project’s choice is, moreover, destructive of one of the deep norms that keeps the open-source community functional – keeping politics separated from our work. If we do not maintain that norm, we risk fractionating into a collection of squabbling tribes arguing particularisms and unable to sustain really large-scale cooperation.

I would consider such a disintegration not merely unpleasant but actually dangerous to civilization, which relies on us for an increasing portion of its critical infrastructure. Accordingly, we need to cooperate more, not less.

That, in turn, means that, even as we may hold strong individual opinions about issues like those motivating Lerna’s proscription list, we need to be more neutral and non-discriminatory in our collective behavior about such issues, not less.