Why the earliest open source licenses are still the most relevant

For over two decades we've fought over open source licensing, but not much has changed.

Image: iStockphoto/marekuliasz

Forget Mac versus Windows: The industry's most poisonous (and pointless) battles used to be waged between free versus permissive licensing for open source projects. But, buried in those battles is a more interesting point than whether user or developer freedom should be privileged: The fact that our earliest licenses have been more than enough, even as the industry has shifted to the cloud.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity (licensing)

Ten years ago, license proliferation was a thing, as many enterprises (filled with lawyers anxious to earn their keep) sought to institute a new license for their respective projects. Hundreds of proposed licenses emerged, and the Open Source Initiative ultimately settled on roughly 60.

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Things came to a head in 2004 when the OSI, guardian of acceptable open source licenses, kicked off the License Proliferation Project. Lots of ink was spilled trying to figure out what to do about all the different vanity licenses, but the easiest answer of all ultimately decided the question:

Let the market decide.

Today, it's clear that the small group of original licenses have endured, rendering the dozens upon dozens of silly additions obsolete:

Black Duck Software

Back in 2004, this chart would have shown dramatically more restrictive (L/GPL) than permissive (Apache, BSD, MIT) licensing, but the overall pie would still go to these two categories of licenses, with everything else representing a rounding error (including relatively popular licenses like the Mozilla Public License).

We didn't need license evolution

Open source licenses had been written in a world when software was distributed on physical media like a CD-ROM, but as software increasingly moved to being "distributed" as services over a network, there were fears that open source would no longer apply. Including, perhaps surprisingly, new-school licenses like GPL 3.0 that attempted to close the so-called SaaS loophole.

Yet, nearly 10 years on, the SaaS "friendly" L/GPL licenses barely top 10% adoption, a number that has significantly stalled. Clearly developers simply don't care about closing the SaaS loophole, which has allowed us to continue to use the same old licenses we always have, despite the distribution mechanisms for software changing so profoundly.

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In fact, if we look at how open source licensing has evolved over the last two decades, there has been a dramatic shift away from restrictive licenses like the GPL and toward permissive licenses, which today account for well over 50% of all open source code, while restrictive GPL-style licenses have dwindled to just a third of all code, a percentage that keeps shrinking every year. This trend is particularly pronounced among the GitHub generation, which often hasn't licensed its code at all.

All of which brings us back to where we began in open source licensing. We've gone through a period of time when we thought we needed purpose-built licenses for individual projects, but we didn't. We've also thought we needed ever more restrictive ways to protect user freedom but, again, we haven't.

The original Apache-style license has managed to outlast all these innovations, because it was ahead of its time in putting developer freedom first.

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