Selecting an open source license

Lawrence E. Rosen lrosen at
Sun Sep 7 18:18:40 UTC 2003

Stan van de Burgt asked:
> My question: Is there a taxonomy of licenses, or better: a concise 
> set of questions to answer, in order to select the right OSI approved 
> license(s) for a project out of the 70+ present?

Start with your open source business model and then select a license to
match it.  

Do you want to allow your software to be incorporated by others into
proprietary derivative works and to be distributed by others under any
license they choose?  Then select an *academic-style license*.  Major
examples are the BSD and Apache licenses, and the new Academic Free License

Do you insist that derivative works of your software that are distributed by
others be licensed to the public under the same license you use?  Then
select a *reciprocal license*.  Examples are the GPL and MPL licenses, and
the new Open Software License (OSL).

Those are the two main categories of licenses.  

Within those broad categories, the licenses on the OSI website each impose
different terms and conditions that must be compared carefully to your own
business model.  You need to consider the effect of patents and trademarks,
warranties, attribution rights, license dispute resolution procedures, and
issues of enforceability of the license around the world.  Those complex
issues are often discussed here on license-discuss.  You should also consult
an attorney.

You are somewhat exaggerating when you say there are "70+" licenses already.
We've got a ways to go to make that target.  Not that this is a target -- in
fact, those of us who need to review and approve license submissions feel
that it will be a fate worse than death.  

Many licenses are submitted for single projects or companies.  These
licenses are often not worth copying and are listed on the OSI website only
because it is important to know that software so licensed is really OSI
Certified open source software.  But don't use those licenses for your
software.  Select one of the general licenses.  I've listed the major ones
in this email.  

That narrows you down to six (6) licenses you can read and understand first.
Not that the others are bad licenses.  They're just not worth considering if
this is your first go-round with open source licensing.

Again, start by thinking about your own open source business model, then see
if one of those six licenses will meet your needs.  

/Larry Rosen
General counsel, Open Source Initiative
lrosen at

(C) Copyright 2003 Lawrence Rosen
Licensed under the Open Software License version 2.0

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