Digging into the boom in permissive open source licensing

Commentary: In 2007 Chris DiBona prophesied 2020’s decline in copyleft licensing.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Open source has never been more “open,” with permissive licensing (Apache, MIT, BSD) continuing to grow faster than its copyleft cousin (AGPL, GPL), according to a new WhiteSource study. It’s not exactly news, though, since this same shift toward permissive licensing has been in play for decades, with permissive licensing overtaking copyleft in 2001, as researcher Dirk Riehle has highlighted

The reason behind that shift, however, is not nearly as well-understood as it should be.

SEE: 10 ways to prevent developer burnout (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

“Kind of like it is yours”

Chris DiBona first called out one of the cardinal virtues of open source in a 2007 interview. Speaking of Google’s engineering practices, he said:

The thing about open source, it’s kind of like it is yours. You can do all the things that you can do to your own code to open source: you can ship it, you don’t have to pay any money or anything, you can fix any bugs, you can have a new feature. These all sound like trivial things, but you can do them all without getting permission, without having to check with anybody, without having to go to your legal team. Once the code’s in your company, people are going to be able to use it like their own. And that’s incredibly powerful.

Considering that Google does an insane amount of software development, if we had to have some of the restrictions that heavily proprietary [code] would present us, we couldn’t develop at the speed that we do.

“Develop at the speed that we do…”. It’s hard to overstate just how powerful this is, especially in a world increasingly composed of software. Years later, DiBona told me that people might have missed the most important thing in his statement: “What people didn’t take away from this is that the more restrictions you put on software, the more people and corporations tend to shy away…”.

Which brings us to permissive licensing.

Opening up

As noted, the shift toward permissive licensing has been underway for years. The reason, as can be teased out of DiBona’s comment, is developer freedom. While it can be argued that copyleft focuses on user freedom, open source tends to focus on the broadest possible developer latitude. As the industry has centered its focus on maximizing developer productivity, licensing has followed, as WhiteSource’s analysis indicates:


Image: WhiteSource

Don’t like WhiteSource’s data? There’s also Black Duck data from 2011 and 2015, or RedMonk analyst Steve O’Grady’s analysis of Black Duck data in 2017, which you may also not like. Why? Because it all points to developers electing to use permissive licensing.

To this, free software advocates suggest that permissive licensing is growing because big business finds it easier to turn open source code to proprietary advantage (something that Jono Bacon pulls apart) or argue that the corpus of copyleft code hasn’t declined in absolute terms (even if they acknowledge it may have declined relative to more permissive licensing). But this all misses the point.

That point is DiBona’s: “[T]he more restrictions you put on software, the more people and corporations tend to shy away.” Good counsel back in 2007, and perhaps even more helpful today.

Disclosure: I work for AWS, but nothing herein relates to my employment there.

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