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You are here: Home Bulletins 2011 Fall 2011 Bulletin Growing trends in free software licensing

Growing trends in free software licensing

by Brett Smith Contributions Published on Nov 28, 2011 05:11 PM
Lately I've noticed an uptick in the number of pundits who claim that free software developers have begun to prefer using lax free software licenses that don't have copyleft (like the Apache License) over ones that do (like the GPL) for their projects. They back up this claim by pointing to surveys that show increased adoption of lax licenses in free software projects, or high-profile projects that have recently adopted such licenses. That evidence tells a different story, however, when you better understand its background.

Typically, surveys show upticks in lax license adoption when they start counting projects on sites that are more specialized than general-purpose hosting sites like Savannah and SourceForge. For example, one such survey saw a huge one-month increase in the use of Microsoft's free software licenses simply because they started counting projects on the Microsoft-backed CodePlex hosting site. These projects deserve to be counted just like any other, but their dramatic one-time effect on a survey doesn't represent the kind of licensing sea change the accompanying headlines would suggest. I have not seen a survey rigorous enough to demonstrate that new projects choose copyleft licenses in fewer numbers than before.

Similarly, news about high-profile projects adopting lax licenses often fails to tell the whole story. The most recent example I'm aware of is Ruby, which recently started using a 2-clause BSD license where they used to use GPLv2. However, much like Perl before it, Ruby has always been dual licensed, and the second license has never provided a strong copyleft. The developers didn't make this switch to move away from copyleft, but to make Ruby code compatible with more licenses: they even specifically mentioned GPLv3 compatibility in their rationale.

It seems undeniable that lax licenses like the Apache License are used by more projects today than before, but that growth doesn't necessarily come at copyleft's expense. Instead, I see this growth coming from two places. First, as more new free software projects are constantly released, of course some of them will be under lax licenses -- that's always been true. Second, more developers understand the importance of license compatibility, and are switching from unpopular so-called "vanity licenses" to standard licenses that are widely recognized and respected. These migrations help users to better understand their rights, and developers to know how they can combine the code with other projects.

Increased use of lax licenses doesn't mean that copyleft is losing. It means that free software is gaining ground.

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