GitHub finally takes open source licenses seriously

The Internet's favorite source code host responds to criticism that it's failing its users over licensing

Last November, I wrote about the huge contradiction embodied in GitHub. Though the site is self-described as the "world's largest open source community," a significant number of GitHub projects come with no rights whatsoever for you to use their code in an open source project. That's because so many don't include an OSI-approved open source license.

According to copyright law, that means you have no rights to use the code for any purpose -- in other words, "all rights reserved." The GitHub Terms of Service offer limited rights in section F.1 to view and potentially "fork" repositories that are made public, but otherwise you have no rights to use the code you see or fork for any purpose, without an open source license.

It seems GitHub saw the irony of the situation and decided to fix it. Today, GitHub debuted the microsite choosealicense.com that offers a greatly simplified view of open source licenses and helps explain their effects. It's an excellent first release, and of course, the whole site can itself be forked and improved at GitHub. I plan to take a look and offer some improvements; you can too.

Even better, GitHub decided to add a step to the creation of a new repository that encourages users to license their copyright as open source. When you create a new repository, you'll see a new picker (image below) that offers a simplified set of open source licenses and will automatically created a readme in the root directory of the repository. This is an excellent move, and GitHub is to be congratulated on taking its responsibilities seriously. With luck, all new repositories will carry an appropriate license.

GitHub finally takes open source licenses seriously

Hopefully this is the first step of a longer process to address the broader issue. Many projects on GitHub still have no copyright license, and an information campaign to existing GitHub users would be appropriate to make sure that's intentional and not just a naive view of the law. There's even a tool GitHub could fork to help with this, called Add a License.

A warning about repositories with no obvious license would also be appropriate so that newcomers don't get seduced into thinking available code is reusable code. There will also be much discussion of which licenses are included and how they are described; fortunately, GitHub and pull requests are a great solution for managing this.

Whatever happens, it's clear GitHub finally recognizes the problem. In the new Choose a License site, the "no license" option includes this documentation:

No License

You're under no obligation to choose a license and it's your right not to include one with your code or project. But please note that opting out of open source licenses doesn't mean you're opting out of copyright law.

You'll have to check with your own legal counsel regarding your particular project, but generally speaking, the absence of a license means that default copyright laws apply. This means that you retain all rights to your source code and that nobody else may reproduce, distribute, or create derivative works from your work. This might not be what you intend.

Even in the absence of a license file, if you publish your source code in a public repository on GitHub, you have accepted the Terms of Service which do allow other GitHub users some rights. Specifically, you allow others to view and fork your repository.

If you want to share your work with others, please consider choosing an open source license.

Exactly! Personally, I'm delighted to see GitHub taking open source seriously, and I congratulate the group on starting to address the problems my earlier article noted. Great work!

This article, "GitHub finally takes open source licenses seriously," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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