Five Popular Open Source Software Licenses

Five Popular Open Source Software Licenses
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by Sanjeev Kapoor 30 Jul 2023

Every day there is an increased production of open source software (OSS) in the IT industry. OSS software is free to use under the terms of a license that typically defines the rights and obligations of anyone that leverages OSS. This is the reason why OSS software licenses play a crucial role in the world of software development, as they regulate many collaboration, transparency, and innovation related processes. For several decades, these licenses grant users the freedom to use, study, modify, and distribute the software. As such they have played a crucial role in revolutionizing the way software is created and shared.

OSS software developers must therefore understand the terms of the various licenses in order to be able to select the best possible license for their projects i.e., the license that better serves the development and adoption goals of their initiatives. To this end, they had better study some of the most popular licenses such as the GPL (GNU General Public License), the MIT License, the Apache License, the BSD License (Berkeley Software Distribution License), and the MPL (Mozilla Public License).


1. GPL (GNU General Public License)

The GPL, created by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), is one of the most well-known open source licenses. It is a copyleft license, which means that any software distributed under the GPL must also be released under the same license. This ensures that the code remains accessible to the open source community and prevents it from being turned into proprietary software. GPL places great emphasis on freedom, including the freedom to run, study, modify, and distribute the software. However, it also imposes certain requirements, such as the obligation to distribute the source code along with the software. This is the reason why it is widely used in the scope of academic and scientific projects, as well as in the scope of projects that must evolve in ways that retain their original license. As a prominent example, the Linux kernel is released under the GNU GPL, which has played a vital role in making Linux one of the most successful open source projects to date.

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2. MIT License

The MIT License is less restrictive than the GPL. However, it still provides significant freedom to users. It allows any user to use, modify, and distribute the software for any purpose, including commercial purposes. The MIT License is simple and permissive. It only requires the inclusion of the original copyright notice in copies of the software. The MIT license has gained popularity due to its flexibility and its compatibility with other licenses, making it a popular choice for libraries and frameworks. One of the most prominent projects that are released under the MIT license is the Ruby on Rails web framework. This enables developers to use Ruby on Rails to build web applications without the constraints of a restrictive license.


3. Apache License

The Apache License, developed by the Apache Software Foundation, is another very widely used open source license. It is a permissive license that allows users to use, modify, and distribute the software under certain conditions. One notable aspect of the Apache License is its patent grant, which provides explicit patent rights to users. This fosters a secure and collaborative environment for developers. Moreover, the Apache License offers compatibility with other licenses, which makes it a popular choice for both individual developers and large organizations. There are many OSS projects that are released under the Apache license. For instance, the Apache Hadoop Big Data processing framework is distributed under the Apache License, which enables organizations to leverage its power for processing and analyzing large datasets. This is also the case with other Big Data projects like Spark and Flink, which are both part of the Apache open source ecosystem.


4. BSD License (Berkeley Software Distribution License)

The BSD License is a permissive open source license that originated from the University of California, Berkeley. It allows users to use, modify, and distribute the software freely, without imposing significant obligations or restrictions. The BSD License is known for its simplicity and flexibility. Thus, it is a popular choice for various projects, including software and middleware projects. One notable variant of the BSD License is the 3-Clause BSD License, which includes an additional clause concerning the use of the developers’ names for endorsement purposes.

The BSD License is very widely used by the networking and telecommunications communities as a main license for networking-related software. As a prominent example, this license empowers the distribution of the FreeBSD operating system, which supports countless network devices and servers worldwide.


5. MPL (Mozilla Public License)

The MPL has been developed by the Mozilla Foundation. It is a unique open source license designed to balance the needs of commercial developers and the open source community. It allows users to modify and distribute the software under the MPL, but also permits the creation of proprietary derivative works. However, any modifications to the MPL-licensed code must be made publicly available, which ensures that the open source community can benefit from improvements and changes. Its unique hybrid nature has made the MPL a very popular choice for projects that should combine flexibility and compatibility with both open source and proprietary software. A very prominent example of MPL software is the Firefox web browser which has been developed and is maintained by Mozilla. MPL allows Mozilla to keep the source code open for community contributions while maintaining commercial partnerships.


When selecting an open source software license developers must consider various factors, including the goals, intentions, and open source compliance needs of a given software project. For instance, GPL prioritizes copyleft and the preservation of open source principles. The MIT License offers simplicity and permissiveness while potentially enabling closed-source commercialization. The Apache License provides a balanced approach, with patent grants and compatibility. The BSD License emphasizes freedom and flexibility without copyleft provisions. Finally, the MPL offers a unique hybrid approach for projects seeking compatibility with both open source and proprietary licensing. By understanding these licenses’ characteristics, developers can make informed decisions when selecting the most suitable license for their projects.

Overall, open source software licensing plays a vital role in the development and distribution of software. The five licenses presented above are just a few examples of the many licenses available to developers. Each license has its own strengths and weaknesses, and the choice of license ultimately depends on the goals and requirements of the project. By understanding the nuances of these licenses, developers can make informed decisions and contribute to a vibrant and collaborative open source ecosystem.

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