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What the rise of permissive open source licenses means

Paul Rubens | Sept. 16, 2016
Why restrictive licenses such as the GNU GPL are steadily falling out of favor.

"If you use any open source software, you have to make the rest of your software open source." That's what former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said back in 2001, and while his statement was never true, it must have spread some FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) about free software. Probably that was the intention.

This FUD about open source software is mainly about open source licensing. There are many different licenses, some more restrictive (some people use the term "protective") than others. Restrictive licenses such as the GNU General Public License (GPL) use the concept of copyleft, which grants people the right to freely distribute copies and modified versions of a piece of software as long as the same rights are preserved in derivative works. The GPL (v3) is used by open source projects such as bash and GIMP. There's also the Affero GPL, which provides copyleft to software that is offered over a network (for example as a web service.)

What this means is that if you take code that is licensed in this way and you modify it by adding some of your own proprietary code, then in some circumstances the whole new body of code, including your code, becomes subject to the restrictive open source license. It was this type of license that Ballmer was probably referring to when he made his statement.

But permissive licenses are a different animal. The MIT License, for example, lets anyone take open source code and do what they want with it — including modifying and selling it — as long as they provide attribution and don't hold the developer liable. Another popular permissive open source license, the Apache License 2.0, also provides an express grant of patent rights from contributors to users. JQuery, the .NET Core and Rails are licensed using the MIT license, while the Apache 2.0 license is used by software including Android, Apache and Swift.

Ultimately both license types are intended to make software more useful. Restrictive licenses aim to foster the open source ideals of participation and sharing so everyone gets the maximum benefit from software. And permissive licenses aim to ensure that people can get the maximum benefit from software by allowing them to do what they want with it — even if that means they take the code, modify it and keep it for themselves or even sell the resulting work as proprietary software without contributing anything back.

Figures compiled by open source license management company Black Duck Software show that the restrictive GPL 2.0 was the most commonly used open source license last year with about 25 percent of the market. The permissive MIT and Apache 2.0 licenses were next with about 18 percent and 16 percent respectively, followed by the GPL 3.0 with about 10 percent. That's almost evenly split at 35 percent restrictive and 34 percent permissive.


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