Open source’s existential dilemma: the meaning of ‘free'

Developers once were quick to distinguish open source as “free as in freedom, not free as in beer.” Today, as GitHub shows, they demand the beer but are nonchalant about the freedom

Become An Insider

Sign up now and get FREE access to hundreds of Insider articles, guides, reviews, interviews, blogs, and other premium content. Learn more.

Open source has never been more popular, but it’s unclear that this has as much to do with its licensing as with its price tag. Years ago, we were quick to distinguish open source as “free as in freedom, not free as in beer.” Two decades on, developers are demanding the beer but are somewhat nonchalant about the freedom. Just ask GitHub.

The GitHub generation and the rise permissive licensing

Years ago, Donnie Berkholz documented the rise of permissive licensing: a shift from restrictive, GPL-style licensing to laissez-faire, Apache-style licensing. Ever the canny observer, Glyn Moody reviewed the data and lamented, “The logical conclusion of the move to more ‘permissive’ licenses [is] one that permits everything.”

Which is exactly what happened.

As of 2013, less than 15 percent of all repositories on GitHub came with a license, open source or otherwise. After years of efforts to change this, a rising percentage of GitHub repositories now carry a license, but it’s still a puny minority of all projects.

As a side note, despite being the world’s largest repository for open source code, GitHub is itself proprietary—and no one seems to care. Ditto for Atlassian, a company that makes hugely popular, yet very proprietary, developer tools. Both are free or low cost, and that seems to be enough.)

To continue reading this article register now