Why all software needs a license

All software developers should add a copyright license. Why? Because open source licensing is all about granting permission in advance

Credit: flickr/Joelk75

If you want your code to be open source, it needs an OSI-approved copyright license. Code with no license to the copyright isn't open source.

That may sound basic (and obvious for OSI's president to say), but a surprising number of people disagree. In the last week, I've heard three misunderstandings expressed from across the open source "political" spectrum. Each is dangerous in its own way; together they are a threat to open source.

Let's take a look at each misinterpretation.

  • All software should be public domain. Every restriction is wrong. Adding a license is a restriction. This view has come from developers -- some associated with BSD -- who regard any use of a license as an attempt at unwarranted control. They would rather their code was "public domain," but most now realize that public domain does not make matters clear enough for developers outside the United States, where the concept is different or nonexistent. Falling back to using the BSD license is the least-worst solution. They see "licensing" as an unwelcome imposition on the recipients of their code.
  • Anyone who can stop software being open is wrong. This license doesn't stop that proprietary use, so it's bad. This view has come from developers -- generally users of the GPL family of licenses -- who believe all code that starts out open source should always remain open source. They see licenses that allow others to take open source code and make it hidden and proprietary as wrong, and prefer licenses that require republication of source code. As such, they reject any licenses that aren't strong copyleft.
  • When it's code that makes things, the result can't be copyrighted. Adding a license is overreach. This view arose in a conversation between lawyers talking about 3D printing. They saw applying a copyright license to source code used by a printer as a claim of ownership. As one correspondent wrote to me: "Chutzpah! We shouldn't overreach with copyright claims and put licenses on everything in sight."

All of these statements come from looking through the wrong end of the telescope. In open source, we "put licenses on everything in sight" not because we want to claim ownership but rather to give permission in advance. When the day arrives that someone becomes concerned about the existence of a copyright claim, there will already be a positive response. We go to great efforts to do so, though many regard it as obstructive bureaucracy.

Many would prefer to simply say their code is "public domain," but the concept is not recognized worldwide. That leaves doubts about sufficient permission-in-advance for some collaborators. We take these steps to guarantee the freedom to innovate without seeking permission first.

Seen through the lens of "granting permission in advance," the distance between the BSD license at one extreme and the GPL at the other does not seem so large. Both seek to set unknown future innovators and collaborators free to innovate by granting permission to use and change the code any way they want -- to everyone. Neither is seeking to claim ownership or restrict use according to their worldview, even if those worldviews differ on the nature of causality. I'm happy to respect their ideological differences and celebrate their shared intent to grant permission in advance.

All OSI-approved licenses grant permission to deploy code for any purpose without restriction, as well as to read, study, and improve the code and to pass it on to others. All those permissions are given in advance; no OSI-approved license withholds them. That's what OSI's work of the last 15 years has delivered -- a guarantee that "the four freedoms" are embodied in approved licenses so that you can simply go ahead and use the code if you see one.

Practitioners of other disciplines related to open source -- open hardware, 3D printing, and so on -- take a similar approach. They apply copyright licenses to their designs not necessarily to assert claims of copyright ownership or to limit the actions of any party, but so that their downstream collaborators are freed from concerns about the legality of their actions. Open source licensing is not about forcing others into your worldview; it's about giving permission in advance to others to create the greatest freedom to innovate. Applying an open source license is a work-around to counter the expected greed of others.

Those over-reaching are not the developers who want to remove barriers to collaboration -- it's those whose expected behavior is to claim maximum rights in all cases. In the case of open hardware and the Internet of things, it seems rash to claim certainty about the ineligibility of copyright where the "object code" is hardware. The lack of involvement of humans in the generation of the source files is a leap, one I'd expect corporate counsel to be able to challenge in court -- silicon fabricators copyright the source files to their chip designs, for example.

Yes, a whole industry revolves around pursuing conformance breaches and using copyright law to suck money out of victims. But applying an open source license does far more to fix that than either leaving the license off (otherwise known as "reserving all rights") or using a proprietary license (the notorious EULA).

Society depends on a rich and deep commons of reusable culture, technology, and ideas. Innovation is rarely creatio ex nihilo but rather, as Newton is supposed to have commented, the act of "standing on the shoulders of giants." Innovators see new ways with old ideas; they envisage solutions to old problems framed by existing craft. Even the greatest of art exists framed in the context of its contemporaries and predecessors.

If we place the commons off-limits, by doing so we also ban most innovation and art and put the brakes on progress. If we want to see innovation in the emerging, meshed society, applying copyright licenses to source files is a necessary prophylactic, not a land-grab. Granting permission in advance so innovators can work their magic freely is grace, not chutzpah.

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