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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.

But this snapshot misses the trend. Black Duck's data shows that in the six years from 2009 to 2015 the MIT license's share of the market has gone up 15.7 percent and Apache's share has gone up 12.4 percent. GPL v2 and v3's share during the same period has dropped by a staggering 21.4 percent. In other words there was a significant move away from restrictive licenses and towards permissive ones during that period.

And the trend is continuing. Black Duck's latest figures show that MIT is now at 26 percent, GPL v2 21 percent, Apache 2 16 percent, and GPL v3 9 percent. That's 30 percent restrictive, 42 percent permissive — a huge swing from last year’s 35 percent restrictive and 34 percent permissive. Separate research of the licenses used on GitHub appears to confirm this shift. It shows that MIT is overwhelmingly the most popular license with a 45 percent share, compared to GLP v2 with just 13 percent and Apache with 11 percent.

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Driving the trend

What’s behind this mass move from restrictive to permissive licenses? Do companies fear that if they let restrictive software into the house they will lose control of their proprietary software, as Ballmer warned? In fact, that may well be the case. Google, for example, has banned Affero GPL software from its operations.

Jim Farmer, chairman of Instructional Media + Magic, a developer of open source technology for education, believes that many companies avoid restrictive licenses to avoid legal difficulties. "The problem is really about complexity. The more complexity in a license, the more chance there is that someone has a cause of action to bring you to court. Complexity makes litigation more likely," he says.

He adds that fear of restrictive licenses is being driven by lawyers, many of whom recommend that clients use software that is licensed with the MIT or Apache 2.0 licenses, and who specifically warn against the Affero license.

This has a knock-on effect with software developers, he says, because if companies avoid software with restrictive licenses then developers have more incentive to license their new software with permissive ones if they want it to get used.

But Greg Soper, CEO of SalesAgility, the company behind the open source SuiteCRM, believes that the move towards permissive licenses is also being driven by some developers. "Look at an application like Rocket.Chat. The developers could have licensed that with GPL 2.0 or Affero but they chose a permissive license," he says. "That gives the app the widest possible opportunity, because a proprietary vendor can take it and not harm their product or expose it to an open source license. So if a developer wants an application to be used inside a third-party application it makes sense to use a permissive license."


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