We're living in a post-open source world

Increasingly, software isn't sold, it's used to power services offered over the Internet. So why contend with the complexities of open source licensing?

After years of bitter feuds between free software and open source advocates, open source won. But it was a temporary victory. While proponents of Apache-style licensing had a brief period to gloat, the GitHub generation seems determined to take open source to its logical conclusion: releasing most software under no license at all.

Are developers simply too careless to bother with a license, or is something bigger under way?

Good-bye to the GPL

The GPL family of licenses has been in decline for some time (also see RedMonk's analysis), tumbling down to 50 percent of all open source licenses used in 2012 and now hovering at 45 percent, even as Apache-style licensing has climbed to 42 percent from 30 percent in 2012, according to data compiled by Black Duck Software.

In fact, this trend has become so pronounced that developers have taken the next logical step: If permissive licensing is good, no license at all must be even better. Or as free software luminary Glyn Moody describes the trend, it's "the logical conclusion of the move to more 'permissive' licences -- one that permits everything."

As Aaron Williamson, senior staff counsel at the Software Freedom Law Center, presented at the 2013 Linux Collaboration Summit, out of the 1,692,135 GitHub code repositories that he scanned, just 219,326 of them -- 14.9 percent -- identified any kind of license at all. Those that did list a license overwhelmingly opted for Apache-style licenses, but it's staggering to imagine so much code without any explicit license.

GitHub lends a hand

In response to criticism, GitHub has tried to pave the way to open source licensing, as Simon Phipps has called out. The company has rolled out choosealicense.com to help developers figure out the right license for their projects. It has also assembled a useful FAQ on the nuances of open source licensing, explicating the downside to not choosing a license:

Generally speaking, the absence of a license means that the 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.

All these moves will likely help. They also won't matter.

Whatever we want, when we want

They won't matter because "open source" doesn't really matter anymore. Not as some countercultural raging against the corporate software machine, anyway. Open source, after all, powers the most important software today, driving big trends like cloud computing, big data, and mobile. It's no longer the challenger. It's not an underdog.

Open source today is simply how we write software.

No, not universally. There are still plenty of massive software companies missing more quarters than they hit with outmoded licensing models. But for the rising GitHub generation, code isn't something you sell. It's something that enables services that can be sold. Redmonk's Stephen O'Grady nails this:

[Some] organizations have realized...that very little code, in practice, is competitively differentiating. Which makes open source a logical course of action, because the potential benefits of making the source code available are likely to substantially outweigh the costs. And as far as licensing is concerned, if the code is not a competitive advantage, it is likely not worth protecting. For those who view the code they produce as a generally fungible asset, the additional protections afforded by a reciprocal license may not only be unnecessary, but unwanted. In this scenario, permissive licenses are a perfect alternative.

Which is where we find ourselves today: in the midst of the post-open source revolution, a revolution in which software matters more than ever, but its licensing matters less and less.

This story, "We're living in a post-open source world," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Formerly a regular contributor and one of InfoWorld's first bloggers, Matt Asay is currently vice president of community at MongoDB.

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