Choosing a licenseApril 17, 2014 9:31 am community, freesoftware
One in a series of indeterminate length I am calling “mostly unimportant questions which take an inordinate amount of time to resolve when releasing a project as free software”. For the next topic, I’m hesitating between “naming”, “logo/icon/mascot design” and “mailing lists or forums”.
Choosing a license
Free software projects need licenses. But choosing a license is such a pain that most github projects don’t even bother (resulting in an initiative by Github to rectify this). And when taking a closed source project and making it free software, the topic of license choice will take a huge amount of time and effort.
I have found the following questions accelerate things nicely.
- Does the project exist as part of a greater ecosystem (eg. Apache, Eclipse, GNOME, Perl, Ruby)?
- If so, is there a predominant license in that ecosystem (eg EPL for Eclipse, MPL for Mozilla, MIT for Ruby gems, BSD for *BSD)? Then use that license.
- Does your business model depend on you having total control of the project for the foreseeable future? (Aside: If so, consider changing your business model) Consider GPL v3+/proprietary dual license
- Do you want to grow a vibrant developer community around your project? If not, why not? Avoid dual license, copyright assignment
- Do you want to grow a vibrant service partner/extensions ecosystem, including proprietary extensions, around your project? Avoid GPL v2+ or v3+ – prefer MPL v2 or Apache v2
- Do you have any dependencies whose licenses you must comply with (eg. GPL v2 hard dependency)? Ensure you can distribute result under a compliant license
- Do you have concerns about the patent portfolios of potential project contributors? Choose from GPL v3, MPL v2, Apache v2 for stronger patent protection for contributors – avoid MIT or BSD
- Do you believe that all contributors to the project, including extensions, should be subject to the same rules? Choose GPL v3
- Do you believe that the source code is free, and people should do whatever they want with it as long as they give you credit? Choose MIT or Apache v2
- After answering these questions, are you considering a license outside of (L)GPL v3, MPL v2, Apache v2 or MIT/BSD? Don’t.
After all of this, there are still situations which can lead to different outcomes – perhaps you want to join a specific non-profit later, and your license choice will be influenced by that. Perhaps you have a dependency currently which you plan to work around later, and you might dual license source code contributions under multiple free software licenses to allow relicensing easily (as OpenOffice.org and Mozilla have done). But the answers to the 10 questions above will at least reduce the scope of your search to one or two licenses.
Any considerations I have missed? Comments welcome!