Permissive or Reciprocal? Choosing the Right License

by Ostatic Staff - Jan. 14, 2010

The eternal question: Should businesses choose a permissive (BSD or MIT style) license, or go with reciprocal licenses to keep competitors in check? Matthew Aslett of the 451 Group has been putting up an informative and insightful set of posts lately about choosing the right license from the business perspective. Or as he'd have it, "A capitalist's guide to open source licensing."

Aslett looks at the open source strategies of Day Software, JetBrains, and SpringSource to see which licenses are best suited for businesses working as part of the FLOSS community.

After looking at these and other businesses, Aslett concludes, "assuming you get to choose your license for a direct monetization strategy a reciprocal license is your best bet, while for indirect monetization strategy choose a permissive license."

In other words — if your core product is how you engage the FLOSS community, then you need to go with the GPL or a similarly reciprocal license to be able to monetize it. If you want to build a community around a project that isn't the primary thing you're selling, you can more easily do that with a permissive license like the BSD or MIT licenses.

What companies should take away from this, loud and clear, is that the more control exerted over the project, the less participation they'll see from outside the company. For management that's not familiar with communal development, giving up control seems like the wrong way to go. However, half-hearted community participation or an overly restrictive approach usually mean that the company can keep full control of an unsuccessful project.

At least the custom of vendors trying to make their own licenses has fallen out of favor. Vendors today may have a tough choice to make between permissive or reciprocal licenses, but at least contributors from other projects and companies don't have to vet quite so many new licenses these days.

Aslett's short case studies are well worth a read, especially for businesses that are or will be participating or sponsoring FLOSS projects.

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a longtime FLOSS advocate, and currently works for Novell as the community manager for openSUSE. Prior to joining Novell, Brockmeier worked as a technology journalist covering the open source beat for a number of publications, including Linux Magazine, Linux Weekly News,,, IBM developerWorks, and many others.