All You Need to Make a Good Open Source License Decision

by Ostatic Staff - Jan. 18, 2016

If you're working on an open source project or thinking of launching one, one of the most critical decisions you must make is which license the project will be released under. And, choosing the perfect license is more complex than ever, because there are more choices than ever.

Over the years, we've provided free guidelines on this topic, but it's definitely a moving target. In this post, you'll find our updated collection of the main things you need to know to make an informed open source license decision.

For many people iin the open source community, GitHub is a primary resource, and its sub-site is worth visiting. There you can learn that the MIT License is a permissive license that is short and to the point, and learn that the Apache License is a permissive license similar to the MIT License, but also provides an express grant of patent rights from contributors to users. Check this site out.

OStatic has done a number of posts on legal issues and licenses pertaining to open source. These in particular, are worth reading:

First, Know They Licenses

Managing Open Source Risk and Keeping it Legal

The Unlicense: A License For No License

FSFE and on Reporting (and Avoiding) Licensing Issues

Thwarting Threats: Free OSS Legal Primer Boasts Big Authors

The Free Software Foundation is the principal organizer of the GNU Project, and you can find the FSF's guidelines on choosing an open source license in this post. The guidelines cover how to choose an overall license for a project, and also cover making decisions on licensing modified versions of an existing project.

Through the FSF guidelines, you can gain knowledge about what Copyleft is, and it's wise to learn more about the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL), and the GNU Affero General Public License (AGPL). t's also worth looking into our post on the Software Freedom Law Center's Legal Issue Primer. It contains a very thorough discussion of most popular open source licenses. And you can find much more introductory material on open source licenses in this post.

One reason to know about open source licenses is to keep things legal, and we have covered a number of legal resources that can help keep open source projects and developers out of harm's way. In this post, you'll find a discussion of a journal focused on open source law called International Free and Open Source Software Law Review. In the journal's archives, you'll find extremely informed discussions of licensing and patent practices, among other topics.

Some open source projects are hardware-centric and the licensing arena applies to these too. Open Source Electronics has a good post up explaining everything you’ll want to look at before picking a license for your open hardware project.

What if you're not starting an open source project but are looking to adopt open source software for your business? Take a peek at SOS Open Source, which provides lots of information on risk involved with various kinds of open source deployments.

Some upfront homework can mean a lot when evaluating open source licenses. Hopefully some of the guidelines above will be of help to you.