Open Ballot: should we thin the licensing herd?


Everyone knows the GPL and what it stands for, but it has many friends in the free software world - the LGPL, the BSD licence, the MIT licence, the artistic licence, the Creative Commons family, the Apache licence, the PHP licence, the Python licence, plus licences from Sun, Microsoft, IBM and many, many more all having been accepted by the Open Source Foundation.

Our Open Ballot for this fortnight asks, "should we as the open source community be trying to reduce the number of licences?" Is "choice is good" a valid answer for software licensing, or are we just hurting ourselves by fragmenting usage terms? Should more work be done to make licences interoperable? Tell us your answer below, and please make sure you use something other than "Anonymous Penguin" otherwise it's likely your words of wisdom will be ignored!

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Not as long as they are not similar

The free software movement and the Creative Commons project have made us aware that licensing is the right of the author. While it can be fairly complex to make sure whether the licenses are compatible, it is an aspect of free software and culture.
If I write software, a novel or put out a piece of music, I decide what the rights of the user are. So my word to the user is: Deal with it.


IMO, having many choices here is a good thing. There are many open source programs doing many different jobs that can be compromised in different way, so they need different terms to protect themselves.


First time poster, long time listener.

Maybe have one license with optional parts to it. Or would that just complicate matters?
Having a core license, with modules that can be added to customise it to suit your individual needs might be a better way of going about things.

Then again it might not.

Don't think it'll happen though, as most of the entities mentioned above want overall control of their own particular spin on what Open source actually is.

Too much choice can be distracting

Ultimately, I think it's important for businesses (like Sun, Microsoft, etc.) to be allowed to make their own open source licenses that are mutually acceptable to them and the OS community. However, I do not think these licenses should all be treated the same way -- that is, I don't think that the average software developer should need to even consider the Python license, IBM license, etc.

Here's the problem: Average Joe makes his cute little exercise manager application in Java. Joe then decides to open source his application, but he doesn't want someone else to just steal his work and start making money off it. So, he heads over to the FSF to read about open source licenses. He clicks "License list", and... sees that there are several hundred valid open source licenses. Joe, completely overwhelmed, either decides that picking a license is too much work and doesn't release his source (bad), or just picks one that sounds good. "Hey", Joe says, "I've heard of this GPL thing before, that's probably good enough." Now Joe releases his code under the GPL, which is probably MUCH more restrictive of a license than he really wanted.

My point is that too much choice can be bad for people who don't need a lot of choice. I don't think we should eliminate Sun's license because it meets their needs and the OS community's as well. However, I think that licenses like Sun's need to be classified in such a way that Joe only needs to compare half a dozen (or less!) licensing options rather than half a kilo.

Yes it would be better.

It's a shame that the new filesystem ZFS from Sun can't be used in Linux because Sun's open source license is incompatible with the GPL.

I'm no legal expert but it's a shame not every open source license isn't interoperable. Better if we could cut down on the number and make them work with each other.


First off I'd like to say I'm ashamed at tuxradar for using the American spelling of the word "licence".

"It's a shame that the new filesystem ZFS from Sun can't be used in Linux because Sun's open source license is incompatible with the GPL."
Bollocks. The Mozilla Public License is incompatible with the GPL, but you're still running firefox, aren't you? It's only when you try to combine incompatibly-licenced programs into one app when there are problems, and if you follow the Unix philosophy "do one thing, do it well" (which apps should do), then this won't be necessary.

AMMENDUM: I just noticed the wikipedia page about it saying what you just said (I was being an idiot, since I've realised you have to link it against the kernel). However, also notice this: "One solution to this problem is to port ZFS to Linux's FUSE system so the filesystem runs in userspace instead. A project to do this was sponsored by Google's Summer of Code program in 2006, and is in a bugfix-only state as of March 2009". There is always another way.

Most users don't need to care about all the different licences, as long as they know the software is free as in freedom, that's OK. Coders and people hosting websites are the only ones who need to care about licences, and they are the ones who are most likely to be clever enough to know to learn the basics of the most common licences and how to use them.

Licence vs license

Muzer: in British English, "licence" is the noun, "license" is the verb, rather like "advice" and "advise". Americans use "license" for both.


First off, I could like to give kudos to Tux Radar for using the American spelling of the word "license".

Licensing matters most to developers and programmers. While I think that the example listed in the post is possible, I think the population of people that are able to write stable code and yet are oblivious to the various licenses available is relatively small.

Would we be doing the development community a favour (eh eh?) by reducing the number of licenses? I doubt it.


There's definitely room for consolidation of licenses. I don't want to see the OSS community reduced to three or four, but many of the smaller licenses are slight variations of the (L)GPL, BSD, MIT, or Apache licenses. Just last night I was reading up on the Eiffel license, and found that the Eiffel team had deprecated the license in favor of the MIT license because it was essentially redundant. Many people's desired license comes down to approximately "don't screw me and my users over ([L]GPL)" or "do whatever you want, as long as I get fair credit (BSD)". We could reasonably reducing the number of licenses in use to ([L]GPL, BSD, MIT, Apache) and cover the vast majority of developers' wishes.

Sacrificing a little bit of fine control over how people use your application in exchange for making users' rights clear seems like a great direction to move in. To the above poster who said "like my license or get over it", consider enterprises that require programs used in their company to be licensed on a specially-approved license. Consider the average developer who wants to incorporate your library into his program- if I see "Licensed under the WhateverPL" I'm likely to go find someone else's library, or write my own, rather than take a chance with a license I don't know anything about. IANAL, so I don't trust my ability to read legalese.

If you're creating software as an art form, just so it exists and for your own gratification, then sure, license it however you wish. But if you want your software to be used, consider the impact of choosing an obscure, not-mainstream license.

A resounding yes. I

A resounding yes. I appreciate that we need some variety, but more than a dozen is just a waste.

No, no, a thousand times no

Survival of the fittest is what thins the numbers in *anything*, not arbitrary decisions by people, regardless of how well-intentioned they are.

When you state in the initial question "are we hurting ourselves" I would have liked an example of how we are, as I don't see a multitude of licences as confusing at all, and I seriously doubt whether there are people lying awake at night fretting over how many there are.

"Muzer: in British English,

"Muzer: in British English, "licence" is the noun, "license" is the verb, rather like "advice" and "advise". Americans use "license" for both."

Sorry, I knew that, I must just have seen the first "licensing" and assumed all the others were like that. I'm blind/tired today :p


Because GPL isn't fitting for everything.

I'm not bothered

I'm not bothered either way, just so long as I have access to software with no strings attached as to what I do with it and to which of my computers computers I may run it upon.

If we must change then, try and make the licenses as simple to understand and concise. (No more than one side of A4 paper in a font size of at least 12pts!)

And, if the lawyers quibble, shoot them!!


I think that most people do not care what license is being used as long as it is completely free, as in freedom. Also, some people may want to make completely free, (open source) software, but don't like the GPL.

As a programmer, I have released all my projects under GPL V3, including my extremely new and unstable, silver desktop environment, which you can find on

Makes no difference

No-one, except perhaps lawyers, those who are very bored, or the extremely pedantic, ever bothers to read the licence anyway; so you can have as many as you like, it'll make no difference to end-users.

Have to agree

The comments by TomMan and Ray Woods are very pertinent here, your question starts with the comment Everyone knows the GPL and what it stands for" I don't believe to be true. at a user level at very least, as Linux extends itself into the User world, and as you have previously looked at, started to Chip in to the Windows user world, the average user is caring less and less about the license, and more about the software being free of charge.

However from a development standpoint, knowing if you have the right to distribute your code for profit, as a closed app, which i belive can be done under the BSD license, or having to essentially ensure all changes are passed back upstream fully free and open, which is my understanding of GPL, has big consequences.

Basing a product on Linux, or developing/forking a project could depend on how the project is licensed. So the choice is good, however the people licensing their code need to make sure they are making the right choice to start with. Which is essentially why we have so many variants. No one licence fits every need for developers and business.

Choice is great, if its the right choice.

Points have been made

There are many valid point that have been made in this post so far ,but when it comes down to it you forget that many people read the licence. Most people use the major licenses (GPL,Apache,BSD,Creative commons) because it suites there needs. If you need anything more restrictive then that you might want to think about when you are releasing it. Is it for the good of the community (useing well know licenses) or for your own ego (useing lesser know/more restrictive).

The next major point I would like to make is complexity is not always a good thing. In my own humble opinion there should be only the major and a the few lesser ones that are actually used by quite a few people. and personally I read every license for the programs I use. I like to know if I can tinker with it and how much help I can do with fixing bugs. If I can write the fix myself to send to the developer that make me feel I did more the just report the bug.

Clean them up

I love to see as many difference licenses as needed. But it would be stupid to state a statement like an annoying person. (over and over and over again. OK, annoying enough).

I think it would be good to leave all the licenses alone, but always create a new Licenses as the basic license of the open Sources foundation, which content all the Over laying statement from all the license that Open Sources foundation accept.

I don't have time to read everyone of them. but here is just a though.

You must be joking

But it is all dependent on the rights of the producer, isn't it? Licenses are NOT a reproduction of effort (cue discussion of too many distributions and package formats), they are a *precise definition* of the giver's conditions of use.

Yes, unless you are a lawyer...

I think it should be simplified in a way that everyone could see and understand the differences. Like:

Free to use: yes/no
Have to publish source after use: yes/no
Whatever other differences: yes/no

Based on these choices you would end up a couple of different yes/no answers but it would be easy to see in a table the differences.
Then you can name the different ones whatever you like ;-)

Only the fit should survive

I don't think we're really hurting the open-source community with the number of different licenses but it does make things harder to understand. I think the problem lies largely with people wanting a license to suit their needs specifically and so creating new licenses instead of being willing to change their practices a little to match with existing offerings.

I think of the more well known licenses we should stick with the GPL/LGPL (obviously), BSD and Creative Commons licenses. The latter of these works well with licensing media (such as this relatively new TuxRadar podcast I keep hearing about) where as the former licenses are great for software licensing.


Proprietary licences are specific to the software that they're for, why should open source licences be any different? If you said to people that if they wanted to release something open source they had to use licence X or Y otherwise it wouldn't be recognised as OSS, it'd be detrimental to the process. Having licence Q R and S as other alternatives allow the licensor a better choice to choose a licence to suit their needs. As long as they all provide the same freedoms, they're all good.

As long as we have the OSI, No

I agree with what everyone has said above, in that different licenses are necessary to handle different situation. However, with a way to bunch them all together (as OSI-approved), I can feel safe knowing that I'm still getting (or producing) something that's certifiably open source. Without that unifying idea, I'd always be worried that there was some legal technicality that made a license sound good but lend itself to more dastardly means in practice.

Nitpicky developers

Many of the "No" comments here take the stance that license proliferation is OK because it represents a developer's right to choose his usage terms. While I'm certainly in favor of that, my stance as a "Yes" person is that the overall community is hurt by developers being nitpicky over what rights they grant their users. Most of the rights most developers wish to grant are represented in a handful of common licenses, and it is my opinion that the community as a whole would be best served if developers would give up a small amount of fine control over their product's usage rights and choose a common license.

Let the community decide

It shouldn't be arbitrary, but the strongest (most preferred) should survive. The Open Source Foundation should be comparing each proposed licence to existing licences and where they are practically the same make mergers or updates to existing licences, in consultation with the community, so there aren't redundant licences.

This could result in simpler licences that people would take the time to read and understand. The Creative Commons Licences are great because they are written in plain English and short enough to work out your rights.

... and I agree with Ray Woods, just shoot the lawyers that want to make it harder to comprehend the purpose of a licence.

Regards from

Most people don't care

Almost everybody I know when they are installing a proprietary windows app they just click "Agree to the Licence" button as soon as the see the page, they stay on the other pages longer than the licence page and it is the licence page that is supposed to take a long time to read! Also almost every proprietary app that I have seen has a different licence from the next and end users _NEVER_ read them.

I think my point is that "End users don't care" and in the bigger picture there are hundreds of licences that nobody reads.

I do think it would be a good thing if we could standardise licences so end users just go "oh it is the so-and-so licence I can do blah-de-dah with this app" and then press "Accept the licence agreement" button. Also I am always in favor of standards because you can just say do this and that and it will work on/with anything and if people don't like it there is absolutely nothing stopping them doing something else, they will just have to do so-and-so in a different way.

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