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Producing Open Source Software by Karl Fogel

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Choosing a License

When choosing a license to apply to your project, if at all possible use an existing license instead of making up a new one. There are two reasons why existing licenses are better:

Familiarity

If you use one of the three or four most popular licenses, people won't feel they have to read the legalese in order to use your code, because they'll have already done so for that license a long time ago.

Quality

Unless you have a team of lawyers at your disposal, you are unlikely to come up with a legally solid license. The licenses mentioned here are the products of much thought and experience; unless your project has truly unusual needs, it is unlikely you would do better.

To apply one of these licenses to your project, see Section 2.3.3 in Chapter 2.

The MIT/X Window System License

If your goal is that your code be accessible by the greatest possible number of developers and derivative works, and you do not mind the code being used in proprietary programs, choose the MIT/X Window System license (so named because it is the license under which the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released the original X Window System code). This license's basic message is "You are free to use this code however you want." It is taken from http://www.opensource.org/licenses/mit-license.php; is compatible with the GNU GPL; and is short, simple, and easy to understand:

Copyright (c) <year> <copyright holders>

Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person obtaining
a copy of this software and associated documentation files (the
"Software"), to deal in the Software without restriction, including
without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish,
distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software, and to
permit persons to whom the Software is furnished to do so, subject to
the following conditions:

The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be
included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software.

THE SOFTWARE IS PROVIDED "AS IS", WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND,
EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO THE WARRANTIES OF
MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE AND
NONINFRINGEMENT. IN NO EVENT SHALL THE AUTHORS OR COPYRIGHT HOLDERS BE
LIABLE FOR ANY CLAIM, DAMAGES OR OTHER LIABILITY, WHETHER IN AN ACTION
OF CONTRACT, TORT OR OTHERWISE, ARISING FROM, OUT OF OR IN CONNECTION
WITH THE SOFTWARE OR THE USE OR OTHER DEALINGS IN THE SOFTWARE.

The GNU General Public License

If you prefer that your project's code not be used in proprietary programs, or if you at least don't care whether or not it can be used in proprietary programs, choose the GNU General Public License (http://www.fsf.org/licensing/licenses/gpl.html). The GPL is probably the most widely used free software license in the world today; this instant recognizability is itself one of the GPL's major advantages.

When writing a code library that is meant mainly to be used as part of other programs, consider carefully whether the restrictions imposed by the GPL are in line with your project's goals. In some cases—for example, when you're trying to unseat a competing, proprietary library that does the same thing—it may make more strategic sense to license your code in such a way that it can be mixed into proprietary programs, even though you would otherwise not wish this. The Free Software Foundation even fashioned an alternative to the GPL for such circumstances: the GNU Library GPL, later renamed to the GNU Lesser GPL (most people just use the acronym LGPL, in any case). The LGPL has looser restrictions than the GPL, and can be mixed more easily with non-free code. However, it's also a bit complex and takes some time to understand, so if you're not going to use the GPL, I recommend just using the MIT/X-style license.

Is the GPL free or not free?

One consequence of choosing the GPL is the possibility—small, but not infinitely small—of finding yourself or your project embroiled in a dispute about whether or not the GPL is truly "free," given that it places some restrictions on what you can do with the code—namely, the restriction that the code cannot be distributed under any other license. For some people, the existence of this restriction means the GPL is "less free" than more permissive licenses such as the MIT/X license. Where this argument usually goes, of course, is that since "more free" must be better than "less free" (after all, who's not in favor of freedom?), it follows that those licenses are better than the GPL.

This debate is another popular holy war (see Section 6.2.4 in Chapter 6). Avoid participating in it, at least in project forums. Don't attempt to prove that the GPL is less free, as free, or more free than other licenses. Instead, emphasize the specific reasons your project chose the GPL. If the recognizability of license was a reason, say that. If the enforcement of a free license on derivative works was also a reason, say that too, but refuse to be drawn into discussion about whether this makes the code more or less "free." Freedom is a complex topic, and there is little point talking about it if terminology is going to be used as a stalking horse for substance.

Since this is a book and not a mailing list thread, however, I will admit that I've never understood the "GPL is not free" argument. The only restriction the GPL imposes is that it prevents people from imposing further restrictions. To say that this results in less freedom has always seemed to me like saying that outlawing slavery reduces freedom, because it prevents some people from owning slaves.

(Oh, and if you do get drawn into a debate about it, don't raise the stakes by making inflammatory analogies.)

What About The BSD License?

A fair amount of open source software is distributed under a BSD license (or sometimes a BSD-style license). The original BSD license was used for the Berkeley Software Distribution, in which the University of California released important portions of a Unix implementation. This license (the exact text may be seen in section 2.2.2 of http://www.xfree86.org/3.3.6/COPYRIGHT2.html#6) was similar in spirit to the MIT/X license, except for one clause:

All advertising materials mentioning features or use of this software must display the following acknowledgement: This product includes software developed by the University of California, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

The presence of that clause not only made the original BSD license GPL-incompatible, it also set a dangerous precedent: as other organizations put similar advertising clauses into their free software—substituting their own organization's name in place of "the University of California, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory"—software redistributors faced an ever-increasing burden in what they were required to display. Fortunately, many of the projects that used this license became aware of the problem, and simply dropped the advertising clause. In 1999, even the University of California did so.

The result is the revised BSD license, which is simply the original BSD license with the advertising clause removed. However, this history makes the phrase "BSD license" a bit ambiguous: does it refer to the original, or the revised version? This is why I prefer the MIT/X license, which is essentially equivalent, and which does not suffer from any ambiguity. However, there is perhaps one reason to prefer the revised BSD license to the MIT/X license, which is that the BSD includes this clause:

Neither the name of the <ORGANIZATION> nor the names of its contributors may be used to endorse or promote products derived from this software without specific prior written permission.

It's not clear that without such a clause, a recipient of the software would have had the right to use the licensor's name anyway, but the clause removes any possible doubt. For organizations worried about trademark control, therefore, the revised BSD license may be slightly preferable to MIT/X. In general, however, a liberal copyright license does not imply that recipients have any right to use or dilute your trademarks—copyright law and trademark law are two different beasts.

If you wish to use the revised BSD license, a template is available at http://www.opensource.org/licenses/bsd-license.php.

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