Software licensing and FOSS

By | June 27, 2016

Since software most of the time is written by somebody (like art: paintings, music, books) and hence it constitute a type of intellectual property that is usually governed by copyright laws. And some countries guide them by patent laws. For a software to be distributed, only the software author could specify the term to do so and anything outside the terms of the author is considered generally as illegal. Free and open source softwares (FOSS), like non-free softwares, rely on licenses (open source licenses) on how it’s used. But unlike non-free softwares, it grants most of the rights to the user of the software rather than the author. FOSS owes much of it attraction to this.

Some organizations that played pivotal roles in defining the philosophy that now governs the creation/evolution of different FOSS licenses are the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the Open Source Initiative (OSI) and the Creative Commons (CC). In an effort not to delve into the intricacies of the philosophy surrounding the evolution of the various FOSS software licenses, only the basic tenet of the different FOSS licenses would be highlighted.

In the beginning there was GPL…

The GNU General Public License (GPL) is the most used license for FOSS – Linux being a very good example. The GNU GPL is the legal manifestation of the FSF’s founding principles – it applies the FSF philosophy to any software licensed with it. Which is basically to guarantee the freedom of users to copy software, instead of restricting their rights. There are two common versions: version 2 and 3 (GPLv2 and GPLv3 for short). And the GPL emphasize that any software derived from a software licensed under the GPL should also be released under the GPL. To see the current version of the GPL click here.

Let there be Open Source…and there was OSI

But they were those (especially businesses) that felt that the GPL was too restrictive since it would threaten their aim or objective of wanting to sell and making profit from software. And this led to the adoption of free softwares that were being churned out. For this reason the Open Source Initiative (OSI) was founded in 1998 to define and cater for what an open source software is. Which is “a development method for software that harness the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predator lock in” – which turned out to differ slightly from the “Free Software” being espoused by FSF. Anyway that was the aim: trying to soften the tone of the FSF to make free software friendlier to the business world. This led to a situation where most free software is open source and a significant amount of open source software is not free. Irrespective of the tensions being propagated by the fanatics of both philosophies, both systems share goals that are complementary enough that their differences become insignificant. And that is more general terms have been coined like free and open source software (FOSS) and Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS), to accommodate both types of software development.

The OSI accept any license as open source based on the following principles;

  • The license permit redistribution, including redistribution as part f larger work.

  • The author make the source code available and permit redistribution of source code (if applicable) binary code.

  • It permits others to modify the software and distribute such modifications under the same license as the original.

  • The license may only allow distribution of modified version only if they are distributed along with the original source code – and may even require that the modified work change the program’s name or version number.

  • It doesn’t discriminate against any person or group of persons.

  • It doesn’t restrict the use of the software in any field (business, education, politics etc)

  • It applies to anybody that receives the software, without the need for a separate agreement.

  • It is not restricted based on specific technologies.

  • It doesn’t restrict other programs that are distributed along with the licensed program.

  • It doesn’t require that the software must be distributed as a composite of a large one – i.e. a part of the software could be extracted and distributed alone.

Some open source licenses, apart from the GPL, inlcude; BSD license, MIT license, Apache license, Artistic license and many more (you can check them at

And Creative Commons was good…

Unlike the FSF and OSI, the Creative Commons (CC) have a broader range of application way beyond software programs. It can be applied to audio recordings, video recordings, texture works, graphics and so many more. The idea behind it was to remove any restriction that might affect the use and distribution of any copyrighted material, without having to go through the hassle of getting permissions which sometimes can be impossible or even denied. The Creative Commons has six licenses that could be applied to any work, and the author of such work can choose any license (specifying the rights that is given to the user) that he/she is comfortable with – like if he/she wants their work to be used for commercial gain or not.

Linux distributions contain many different components, and these components use different open source licenses (and in some cases components that are non-free!). One thing you should know is that you don’t need to burrow deep into the philosophy behind open source licenses to be able to use them. Be guaranteed that open source licenses guarantee your freedom to use FOSS as you like for whatever purpose, and even if you want to share them with other people. It’s all about the user’s freedom, freedom and freedom. So enjoy!

Happy Linux’NG!


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