Everything you need to know about licensing in 2 minutes

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Broken copyright


  • Software is protected by copyright law in the U.S. and many other countries.
  • Anyone that wrote the software, owns the copyright and can say how it is used. [NOT saying how it can be used does NOT remove your responsibility as the owner, even if you don't care.]
  • People sometimes give up their copyright ownership to the software they write in their employment agreements. [If you didn't read your employment agreement, you're probably not a professional software developer.]
  • If you want to liberally share your software with others so they can use it for anything, there are a few well-accepted SIMPLE licenses (Apache 2.0, BSD, MIT). These essentially say:
    • Do whatever you want with the software.
    • Don't claim my work as your own.
    • Do give me credit for my work.

It takes about two minutes each to read the Apache 2.0, Berkeley, and MIT licenses. Pick one. They are good enough for one of the most successful collaborations we have witnessed in the short history of software development, and for two institutions for higher learning recognized for their contributions to computer and software technology. These licenses were written by lawyers that understood software copyright law and liberally sharing software. Apache Software Foundation projects are powering the growing business ecosystems of cloud computing, and have successfully powered the rise of the web for 15 years. No lawyer you hire will do better.

If you live on GitHub, it will take you less time than reading this post to visit the appropriate OSI URL, copy the text, and paste it into a LICENSE file in the top of the tree with the appropriate minor edits for date and project name.

If you care about software freedom, then you are admitting you have already probably read more on the topic than the average developer, and can go refresh yourself on the excellent Free Software Foundation essays, re-read the GNU licenses, and choose appropriately.

If you are trying to "make money" from your software, then you are admitting you need to involve a lawyer in your business, or spend enough time educating yourself on the business tools available in your chosen profession. A very good reference for developers is Van Lindberg's Intellectual Property and Open Source.

If you think you need an opinion on software patents, re-read the previous paragraph.

That's it. There's the two minute course.  If you read quickly, it was over faster.

Any other discussion is window-dressing or whining, and just plain unprofessional if you write software for a living or for other people to use. If you want folks to use your software, license your work. Writers do it. Artists do it. Engineers and architects do it.  So should you.

Originally posted on the Outercurve blog. Reposted with permission.

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I am a technical executive, a founder, a consultant, a writer, an international business person, a systems developer, a software construction geek, and a standards diplomat. I love to build teams and products that make customers ecstatic. I have worked in the IT industry since 1980 as both customer and vendor.


Except for one small issue...

The BSD License doesn't fully require
<ul><li>Don't claim my work as your own.</li><li>Do give me credit for my work.</li></ul>

They require that the source code continue to contain their headers. The final distributed code does not.

If you write a program that I find useful, I can modify it, and release it as "My Commercial Program" and **SELL** it to others - and not give you ANYTHING.

Asking a lawyer for help is no different than asking a translator for help. Only a lawyer is translating legalese into English.

Doesn't no license mean "do whatever"? Why is that particularly bad and/or dangerous?

It might not be particularly bad for some, but others prefer licenses that exert more control over how source code is used—for example, copyleft licenses that keep code open when it finds its way into other projects.

The link "Intellectual Property and Open Source" is to a book, which will take >> 2 mins to digest!

You do not state anything about rights to use and liability in the absence of a licence, or if a licence mentions one but not the other aspect.

There seems to be no simple standard licence that allows unrestricted use for non-commercial (not-for profit) use, but reserves the the right to charge for commercial use. (Any need for a lawyer could then be confined to the latter case, when one would probably be needed anyway, and there would be funds to pay for it.)

software licensing can not be explained to someone that has no idea yet, in 2 minutes. the topic is simply too complex for that, else there would not be so many discussions, misconceptions in peoples heads, and different licenses.

still, i think it is good that you tried. thanks! :-)
maybe use 10min next time. if you write software, and can not spend 10min, once in your live, to make sure that all the software you ever write will be used as you want it to be used, you are definitely not taking and your job serious enough.

the most important thing:
[NOT saying how it can be used does NOT remove your responsibility as the owner, even if you don't care.]
should be a separate point, and should be reformulated to be less confusing. maybe something like:
* not specifying a license means: All rights reserved; which means nobody is allowed to do anything with the code, except he has the explicit allowance by the author

to make this very clear, is in my eyes, the most important task of every attempt to explain software licensing, as it causes by far the most problems in practice.

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