Learn You Some Licenses (Lit Review)

February 5, 2015


Software Freedom Law Center


A Legal Issues Primer for Open Source and Free Software Projects (Intro, Ch. 1-2)


PDF Document



The Gist

This document clears up common misconceptions about free/open source software and its relation to copyright.
There are countless different licenses in common use within the greater FOSS community, and this publication helps make it easier to understand and potentially choose one.
Copyright law itself is opaque, and this primer also helps make it easier to understand at a basic level.

The Good

  • The document explains the most common FOSS licenses in use and rationales for their use.
  • While seeming to be inclined towards the GPL, other licenses were presented fairly.
  • The advice given is concise and practical and doesn’t require a law degree or having met Richard Stallman to understand.

The Bad

  • Cursory mentioning of Creative Commons.
  • Not enough examples of murky copyright situations.
  • “Most violations of the GPL are unintentional” [citation needed]

The Questions

  • What about other licensing options, such as public domain?
  • How are these licenses related to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act?
  • Since the GPLv3 was released in 2007, why do so many projects continue to use the GPLv2?

Programmers often scoff at being made to care about aspects of their projects aside from the code. Yet the simple act of paying attention to the license and copyrights of contributors can make a big different were the code to be used by a corporate entity or proprietary project. This document is a great primer not only on major license differences and use cases, but the philosophical and social reasons for their existence and use.

While copyright may not be an exciting subject for many, it is quite important, especially with how free and open information distribution has become thanks to the Internet. It is imperative for developers to pay attention to the copyright of their projects and relation to their communities.

One aspect that I wish were addressed more in the document is the resolution of FOSS licenses with SaaS (Software as a Service) projects. Though information proliferates more, the concept of individual ownership of software in the traditional sense seems to be going the way of the dinosaur. Why should I only pay $600 for Adobe Photoshop when they can make it SaaS and perpetually charge me? Commonly, FOSS projects are becoming services, so reconciling license requirements with convenience for users and permission from copyright holders will create an interesting legal situation in the eras to come.

Rating: 4/5

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