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How to pick an open source licence for your code

What makes a project open source? That the code is freely available online? That you can use it, modify it and send it to a friend? Strictly speaking, it’s the licence that grants you permissions to do all of the above. When open-sourcing your project, you must include a licence file that lays out the terms under which people can use it. Fortunately, there are many options to choose from so you don’t have to be a lawyer. Unfortunately, there are way too many of them. This is how to pick the right one.

HEADS UP This how I do it for my personal projects, but I’m not a lawyer and this certainly isn’t legal advice.

What licenses are there?

The number of licences that would qualify as free and/or open source is in hundreds. If you’re into long lists, check out the enumerations at the GNU Project and Open Source Initiative websites or on Wikipedia. Even these are probably far away from being exhaustive.

Despite the variety, the differences aren’t usually that dramatic. There’s so many of them because people are too fussy about wording and certain details, but many of them map onto essentially the same terms. To quickly review the conditions of various licences, check out tl;drLegal.

Copyleft vs. Permissive licences

The biggest thing that divides licences is copyleft, a concept introduced by the GNU project to prevent further distributors of your software from restricting the freedoms you granted to the project originally. This means that anyone who would like to redistribute a modified version of your code will have to publish their modifications as well.

Some licences choose to implement this (GPL, LGPL, MPL) while others don’t (MIT, Apache, BSD). In some cases, copyleft can be extremely useful to prevent abuse of your project; in others, it can hinder its adoption by companies that won’t be able to use copylefted code with their non-free products or proprietary libraries.

The scope of your project

One of the most important things to consider when picking a licence for your project is its scope. Is it a library, dev tool or full-fledged application? If it’s meant to be used along with other libraries, you need to be careful which licence you pick not due to compatibility issues (more on that in the next section).

For full-fledged applications or products like an Android app, desktop program or command line tool, I’d probably go with a copyleft licence like GPLv3 which gives me an extra bit of security that it will always remain open.

When releasing a library or framework to be used by developers in their projects, the choice is a bit more difficult. Not allowing them to distribute their programs that depend on your library without including the source code might prevent companies from using it in their projects, which might prevent wider adoption.

Personally, I’d choose a permissive licence in this case, like MIT or BSD. While that leaves the possibility of a company forking the project, improving it and never giving back the changes, it doesn’t make much sense for many companies to do that. Diverging from master means they would have to bear the maintenance costs which usually outweighs the price of any ultra-smart innovation they might have made to your code.

LGPL isn’t a bad choice either. It let’s other use the compiled version of your library with proprietary code while still applying copyleft to the sources of the library itself.

Compatibility issues

Some licences contain clauses that contradict with other licences, making them incompatible. That means that you can’t combine two software packages or libraries that are licensed under such contradicting terms.

Look at the packages your project is using and make sure to pick a licence that doesn’t contradict with the terms of those. There are many resources to get compatibility information from, including Wikipedia. This issue tends to affect the more complicated and restrictive ones, such as GPLv3. Because they’re much longer and more specific, the chances of conflicts are higher.

Ecosystem bias

Depending on the technologies your project uses, one licence might be a better option than the other, considering the ease of adoption. Even more so if it’s a library. Sticking with the popular choice makes it easier for your users, because they’re likely to be familiar with its terms. It also minimises chances of conflicts.

For example, the JavaScript and Ruby communities favour the more permissive MIT while projects in C/C++ are much more often distributed under GPL.

When releasing a library, make sure to research the climate in your niche. The ecosystem might help you decide. That said though, don’t feel obliged to do exactly what everybody else is doing if you don’t feel it’s the right choice for your project. Unless the one you go for is incompatible with the majority of the libraries in the area, you’ll be fine.

No licence

The usage statistics published by Ben Balter on Github’s blog earlier this year show that about 80% of repositories on their site don’t include a licence. Due to the way copyright works, this means that nobody is lawfully able to use their code and even though it’s available online it can’t be considered open source. This is a real shame.

Unless this is explicitly what you’re aiming for, take the time to think about licensing, otherwise no experienced developers will touch your code, risking their reputation in a lawsuit.

Summary

This is how I would go about picking a licence for my project. As long as you’re making an informed decision, there’s no right or wrong answer to which licence is the best. Pick one that best suits your needs. Just make sure to pick at least one.

Which licence do you prefer? Let me know in the comments below or by tweeting at @radekpazdera.