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You are here: Home Bulletins 2011 Spring 2011 Bulletin Recommending licenses for new free software projects

Recommending licenses for new free software projects

by Brett Smith Contributions Published on Oct 17, 2011 02:51 PM
We recently published a new page on our site, entitled "How to choose a license for your own work." It's a comprehensive set of license recommendations for new projects. It explains what factors are important to consider when making licensing decisions, and suggests specific licenses for different scenarios.

Publishing resources like this helps the Compliance Lab achieve a couple of different education goals. Most obviously, it serves as a guide to help new projects make good licensing decisions. It also illustrates how the FSF uses licensing as a tool to encourage the adoption and development of free software. Sometimes people have the mistaken impression that we care more about a program's license than freedom. They claim on Internet forums that the FSF wants everything to be GPLed. This page clears up that misconception and puts the GPL in its proper context as a means to an end.

During the drafting process for this guide, we decided to make one adjustment to our existing recommendations: in situations where a copyleft license is not appropriate, we now recommend the Apache License 2.0. This shift was spurred on by several changes that have taken place over the past few years. As sad as I am to admit it, patents remain a growing threat to free software. Since the US Supreme Court's decision in Bilski v. Kappos, software patent litigation has continued as before, and cases that have followed like Bedrock v. Google are clear attacks against free software. We will never be completely safe until software patents are abolished, but any defenses we can implement today are worthwhile.

The Apache License 2.0 is the best non-copyleft license that does what a copyright license can to mitigate threats from software patents, and the Apache Software Foundation deserves credit for their efforts in this space. The Apache License is a well-established, mature license that users, developers, and distributors alike are all comfortable with. It also enjoys support from other free software licenses: GPLv3 is compatible with it, and the forthcoming Mozilla Public License 2.0 should be as well.

It's unfortunate that the Apache License 2.0 isn't compatible with older free software licenses like GPLv2. As we considered this change to our recommendations, this point was easily the most important one weighing against it. Fortunately, every major copyleft license has or will soon have Apache compatibility in their latest versions, which mitigates those concerns. Ultimately, we went ahead with this change because we want our recommendations to help projects make decisions that will serve them well for a long time to come, rather than focusing too much on today's immediate circumstances.

I hope our new guide and this article help people understand how good licensing decisions can go a long way to help protect and promote free software. If you have questions or feedback about any of this, please don't hesitate to write us at; we're always happy to hear from our supporters.

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