Understanding Open Source Software Licenses

Open Source Software Licenses

Understanding Open Source Software Licenses

In the spirit of Hacktoberfest, you may want to create an open source project or contribute to one, but before you embark on this exciting journey, it’s important to understand an aspect of the open source world, which is software licenses. Open source software licenses govern the use and distribution of open source software. There might be a question in your mind: if open source is free, why do we need licenses? Well, not all open source repositories have the same permissions, so the open source license states what the users can and cannot do with the software component.

In this article, I will provide you with information about open source software licenses, their importance, types, implications, and how to choose the right one.

What is Open Source Software?

Open source software refers to software whose source code is made available to the public, allowing anyone to view, modify, and distribute it freely. This open approach fosters collaboration and innovation within the software development community. Here’s an article to learn more about open source.

What is Open Source Software License?

An open source software license is a contract or legal agreement that governs the use, modification, distribution, and sharing of computer software that has been released under an open source model.

Types of Open Source Software Licenses

There are two major types of licenses; copyleft and permissive licenses.

  • Copyleft License; This license ensures that software and its improvements must always remain open source, promoting collaboration and sharing. This means that a software built using an open source feature with a copyleft license must be released as open source.

  • Permissive License: This type of software license allows users to use, alter, and share the source code. It allows for more flexibility in how software is used with a primary requirement of giving credit to the original author.

Examples of Open Source Software Licenses

There are over 50 open source license with different specifications but these are some of the most widely used licenses;

GPL (GNU General Public License)

The GPL is a copyleft license that emphasizes the principles of freedom and cooperation. Under the GPL, any software derived from GPL-licensed code must also be released. This ensures that modifications and improvements to the software remain accessible to the community. Developers that use the GNU GPL protect your rights by asserting copyright on the software, and giving you legal permission to copy, distribute, and/or modify it.

MIT License

The MIT License is a permissive license that allows developers to use, modify, and distribute the software freely with minimal restrictions. Developers using MIT-licensed code can integrate it into their projects without the obligation to open source their entire project.

Apache License

The Apache License balances openness with legal protections. It grants users the freedom to use, modify, and distribute the software while also providing a level of legal protection against patent-related issues. This makes it a popular choice for projects involving complex technologies.

BSD License

The BSD License offers flexibility to developers. It permits the use, modification, and distribution of the software, similar to the MIT License. However, it includes a clause that requires users to acknowledge the original authors of their work.

How to Choose the Right License

When selecting the open source license for your project, you need to consider the following factors:

  • Project Goals: Determine the core values of your project. If you prioritize community collaboration and open access, a GPL-style license may be suitable. If you aim for flexibility and permissiveness, MIT or Apache Licenses might be more fitting.

  • Licensing Compatibility: Check if your chosen license is compatible with other open source licenses your project may depend on. Some licenses are more compatible with others, which can simplify collaboration with other developers.

Implications of Open Source Licenses

Understanding open source licenses is essential not only for developers but also for businesses and organizations that use open source software. Here are some key implications to be aware of:

  • Compliance: Using open source software requires strict adherence to the terms of the associated license. Non-compliance can lead to legal issues and damage your project’s reputation.

  • Contribution: Contributing to open source projects can be a rewarding experience. However, be aware that your contributions may be subject to the license terms of the project. Ensure you are comfortable with these terms before getting involved.

  • Monetization: Some open source licenses allow for commercial use and monetization, while others may restrict these activities. Consider your business model and revenue streams when choosing a license.

How to Add an Open Source License to Your Project on GitHub

Below are the steps involved in adding a license to your project on GitHub;

  1. Navigate to the GitHub repository of your choice

  2. Click on the Add file drop-down menu, then click Create new file.

  1. In the file name field, type LICENSE or LICENSE.md

  1. Click on Choose a license template. This will take you to another page showing a list of licenses. Choose the license that suits your open source software.(I’ll be using the MIT license).

  1. Review the details of the licence, then click on Review and submit.

  2. Your license is ready, and you’ll need to commit it to the master branch or a new branch. Here’s how you can commit changes to your repository.

  1. Your license should be added to the repository.


In conclusion, open source software licenses define how software can be used, shared, and improved upon, shaping the collaborative nature of the software development community. As an open source enthusiast, it is important to understand the various types of licenses available and choose the one that aligns with your project’s goals.

You can learn more about Open Source with these resources.

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