Open-Source Software Licenses

Open-source software is licensed so that anyone can use, alter, and share it. An open-source license (OSS) is a legal contract that determines the copyright of software. Open-source licenses have many practical uses for business and development. The open-source movement has solved many problems that plagued software developers in the past, particularly through crowdsourcing.

Rapid development is much easier when millions of users can help developers test and improve the software. One of the most well-known open-source projects is Linux, a free operating system kernel built on top of the GNU operating system. Linux uses the GPL version 2 license. All open-source licenses are intended to govern how the software will be used. This includes:

  • Private Use: the freedom to use and change software for non-commercial purposes.
  • Distribution: sharing for commercial or non-commercial use.
  • Linking: linking to free and proprietary sources.
  • Patent Grants: rights to intellectual property granted by the government.
  • Sublicensing: an agreement in which the owner of something allows people to use their software to create new things so long as whatever they create is also distrubuted under GPL.
  • Trademarks: a symbol or word that represents an organization or product.

Open-Source Software vs Free Software

Just because software has an open-source license, does not mean it is free. It may be easy to interpret the term "open-source" to mean "free". Both of these terms have complex definitions that are constantly changing. While all free software licenses are technically open-source, not all open-source licenses are free.

Legal interpretations and enforcement of the terms and conditions contained in any given open-source license will depend on the legal jurisdiction protecting the copyright. It also depends on the country connected to that jurisdiction. The seeds of open-source licensing can be traced to free, copyleft licenses created in the United States during the 1980s.

The creation of the Open Source Initiative (OSI) in 1998 has helped shape the landscape of the open-source software licensing today. Below are some sources with helpful definitions of key terms, organizational bodies, and historical landmarks related to open-source licensing.

Here are the most popular open-source licenses currently available:

You Got All That?

That's a lot of open-source license to process. Even so, knowing what's available can help to better guide your decisions going forward.

Further Reading and Resources

We have more guides, tutorials, and infogragphics related to all things computer and internet:

If you really want to understand copyright, we've created a great resource, The Ultimate Guide to Copyright And it really is the ultimate guide; it will tell most of what you need to know. After that, you'll probably need a lawyer.