Today I'm pondering if the current open source model is still valid or if it's outdated. Do we need licensing for open source software? Do we need the GPL, LGPL, APL and all the other licenses that plague...er, grace us? If your software is free and open source, why bother with a license at all? The software writer owns the copyright so why put users or potential users through the paces of licensing? What exactly is to be gained by creating and enforcing a license for this kind of software?

Currently, there are 64 active licenses listed on the Open Source Initiative's (OSI) website and more are pending approval. 64 licenses is more than just a little ridiculous.

Seriously, you're telling me that the people who keep coming up with license ideas can't use one of the existing ones? The ones who read through the 63 other licenses looked at each other and said, "Nope, these just won't do--we need to come up with our own license."

Take a look at the OSI's Open Source Definition and then ask yourself if you find licensing a necessity or a frivolous exercise:

Open source doesn't just mean access to the source code. The distribution terms of open-source software must comply with the following criteria:

1. Free Redistribution
The license shall not restrict any party from selling or giving away the software as a component of an aggregate software distribution containing programs from several different sources. The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale.

2. Source Code
The program must include source code, and must allow distribution in source code as well as compiled form. Where some form of a product is not distributed with source code, there must be a well-publicized means of obtaining the source code for no more than a reasonable reproduction cost preferably, downloading via the Internet without charge. The source code must be the preferred form in which a programmer would modify the program. Deliberately obfuscated source code is not allowed. Intermediate forms such as the output of a preprocessor or translator are not allowed.

3. Derived Works
The license must allow modifications and derived works, and must allow them to be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software.

4. Integrity of The Author's Source Code
The license may restrict source-code from being distributed in modified form only if the license allows the distribution of "patch files" with the source code for the purpose of modifying the program at build time. The license must explicitly permit distribution of software built from modified source code. The license may require derived works to carry a different name or version number from the original software.

5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups
The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons.

6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor
The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor. For example, it may not restrict the program from being used in a business, or from being used for genetic research.

7. Distribution of License
The rights attached to the program must apply to all to whom the program is redistributed without the need for execution of an additional license by those parties.

8. License Must Not Be Specific to a Product
The rights attached to the program must not depend on the program's being part of a particular software distribution. If the program is extracted from that distribution and used or distributed within the terms of the program's license, all parties to whom the program is redistributed should have the same rights as those that are granted in conjunction with the original software distribution.

9. License Must Not Restrict Other Software
The license must not place restrictions on other software that is distributed along with the licensed software. For example, the license must not insist that all other programs distributed on the same medium must be open-source software.

10. License Must Be Technology-Neutral
No provision of the license may be predicated on any individual technology or style of interface.

As you read through those ten criteria, would you think that a license is even useful? I personally do not.

If you're going to create something that is free and open source, don't restrict it with some bogus licensing scheme; just give it away and retain the copyright so that no one can reproduce your hard work without at least an acknowledgement of that work as yours.
In my opinion, as soon as you slap a license on something, you can no longer call it open. Putting a restriction on something that you're allowing unrestricted access and use to is just silly.

And, if I buy a piece of software, I don't have to accept the license before I shell out the money for it. I have to accept the End User License Agreement (EULA) prior to installation but do I get my money back if I don't agree with the license?

What purpose do any of these 64 licenses serve? What do they afford me as an end user of the software? What do they do for the software owner?

I think licensing, in general, is stupid and pointless. It serves no real purpose for the software writer(s) nor does it help the software user. I've heard all the wailing and gnashing of teeth against software patents but none against licenses.

What are your thoughts on the subject? Write back and let me know.

9 Years
Discussion Span
Last Post by khess


You obviously don't understand the law. Let me help you out. If you retain copyright and don't put a license on your software then people DO NOT HAVE THE LEGAL RIGHT to do ANYTHING with your software. It's therefore CLOSED SOURCE - even if you put it on a public web site.

Now, you might say "I'll tell people they can do whatever they want with the source code", e.g. "You can do whatever you want with this software, just don't bug me if it doesn't work." You know what? That's called a LICENSE.

If you want your software to be open source, you must either disclaim copyright (which puts the software in the public domain, there are some very good legal reasons not to do this, but some people do it anyway) OR you must put a license on it.

"I think licensing, in general, is stupid and pointless."

So, you're wrong. LEARN something about why licenses exist. I've tried to educate you here.

"What do they afford me as an end user of the software?"

In some cases, quite a lot. In some cases, not very much. It really depends upon the license.

"What do they do for the software owner?"

In nearly every case, they disclaim liability if the software does not work correctly.


Does Public Domain software have a license?

Do I need a license to use a hammer?

And without a license, it's closed source? Dude, it's you who perhaps needs an education.


Swashbuckler2 does a commendable job of explaining why licenses are important. But why do we have so many licenses?

We have so many licenses because authors have varying goals for their software.

The most common license by far is the Gnu GPL. It is a reciprocal (or so-called "copyleft") license that ensures that anyone may distribute modified versions of the software as long as they share the source code for the modifications. In other words, "once free, always free" with GPL.

The Gnu Lesser GPL (LGPL) is a variation used mostly by people who write libraries of code. It enforces a "copyleft" on updated versions of the library, but permit proprietary software to use the library. This is a compromise, as it encourages development of libraries useful for GPL software at the expense of permitting its use with non-GPL software.

The Affero GPL (AGPL) is a variation used for web applications. It helps enforce copyleft for applications that run on web servers rather than local computers.

The most common non-copyleft free licenses are Apache and BSD, which permit covered software to be used by proprietary products. For example, Apple Mac OS/X includes much of the BSD kernel - but because that kernel is covered by BSD rather than GPL, they do not need to release OS/X source code. So with these licenses, "once free, but later maybe proprietary" is the rule.

Licenses aren't just for software - for example, the Creative Common licenses are often used for "free culture" such as writing and music. I believe 5 variations of CC licenses are available.

Hopefully, this helps you to see that selecting a license for your creations controls who uses it and how. This is very important, because it also tells others how they may use what you have created! If you create something, but provide no license, it cannot be copied and / or used by anyone else.

Spend some time reading about licenses, and perhaps you'll understand why so many electrons have been spent discussing, debating, and adjusting free software licenses. Learn more at http://www.fsf.org/.


"And without a license, it's closed source? Dude, it's you who perhaps needs an education."

Actually, while the author may give the source code it would effectively be closed source in that since the author would own the copyright and without either giving up that copyright and releasing it to the public domain or providing a license that states acceptable use of his copyrighted material then another person is take a very large chance arbitrarily using that code. A license defines the rights that belong to both the copyright holder and to the licensee. It also provides legal protection of these rights. This is very important and without having those rights explicitly defined there would be no open source software. What happens if you use someones source without a license, 5 years down the road he decides he wants to make a commercial proprietary product, closes up the source and then decides to sue everyone who had previously used his source for their own projects? You would have no legal protection from him without a license.


If you are reading this article, and interested in open source licenses, you will likely be interested in a debate taking place on August 31, 2009. The debate features some extremely knowledgeable and experienced speakers. Important factors to consider when choosing a license, and subtleties between licenses will be examined.

There is a web cast available for free.

Details are here: http://www.fosslc.org/drupal/node/407


Thanks very much for that link. It is very interesting and I'll be sure to catch it.


"Does Public Domain software have a license?"

No. No owner, no license needed.

"And without a license, it's closed source? Dude, it's you who perhaps needs an education. "

I've already had mine (I'm an open source specialist at a large software company - I know one hell of a lot more about this subject than you do) and I'm trying to help, but if you want to remain ignorant I can't stop you. The simple fact is no one but the owner has any right to use software that is copyrighted without a license. No one else has the right to use the software in any way, shape or form.

Or think of this way: a lot of very smart people have spent a lot of time thinking and working about licensing - what the hell makes you think you know more than all of those people? Have you ever gone to law school? Have you ever tried a copyright case in court? Have you ever even read a court decision on a case? What's that? NO?! Then you just might consider the idea you don't know what the hell you're talking about.



No, I'm not a lawyer. Are you?
No, I've never tried a case. Have you?
It would be interesting to interview you on this subject on The Frugal Tech Show (www.frugaltechshow.com) if you are truly an expert on the subject. Contact me via that site if you'd like to do that.
But this dialog gives me an idea for further investigation.

Have something to contribute to this discussion? Please be thoughtful, detailed and courteous, and be sure to adhere to our posting rules.