Free Software Licenses Are Losing Ground To Permissive Open Source Licenses

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Big and small software projects are turning their back on free software copyleft licenses like the GNU GPL in favor of the more permissive MIT and Apache licenses. Free software licenses were the dominating open source licenses seven years ago. Less than a third of all open source projects are using a free software license today.

written by 윤채경 (Yoon Chae-kyung)  2020-01-28 - last edited 2020-01-28. © CC BY

GNU provides free software so you can have true freedom when you are using computers. Big corporations prefer to control you.

Free software copyleft licenses like the GNU GPL have several requirements designed to protect the end users freedom. Commercial products using GPL code have to make the source code available and the license has to follow the product. You can't just take a GPL licensed program and re-release it under a commercial license.

Permissive "open source" licenses do not have any similar requirements or restrictions. Anyone can take a MIT licensed software library, modify it and include it in a commercial product with no obligation to share the source code, changes made or anything else.

"The terms "free software" and "open source" stand for almost the same range of programs. However, they say deeply different things about those programs, based on different values. The free software movement campaigns for freedom for the users of computing; it is a movement for freedom and justice. By contrast, the open source idea values mainly practical advantage and does not campaign for principles. This is why we do not agree with open source, and do not use that term."

The open source license management firm WhiteSource, who claims to be "WhiteSource is the leader in open source security and license compliance management, has released a study of 4 million open source packages which shows that copyleft licenses, and the GNU GPL in particular, are becoming less popular.

59% of open source software projects were licensed under a copyleft license in 2012 with permissive licenses accounting for 41%. Those figured have flipped. Only 33% of open source projects were using a free software copyleft license in 2019. The vast majority, 67% of the total, are now using a "permissive" license. The MIT Software License is now the most popular "open source" license with the Apache License v2.0 coming in at second place.

Permissive licenses are specially popular among the big software giants who control a majority of the bigger open source software projects. Google, Facebook and Microsoft do not want to be obligated to share any modifications they add to the commercial products they produce using open source software. Google's Chrome web browser is a proprietary closed-source product even though the Chromium browser it is based on is open source (not free software) under a permissive license. Google could not do that if Chromium was licensed under the GNU GPL, they would have to share the proprietary closed source parts of Chrome upon request if it was built on a GPL licensed product.

The trend towards permissive licenses will likely continue. Permissive "open source" licenses provide commercial entities with all the benefits and none of the pesky obligations copyleft licenses have to ensure that end users have freedom when they use computers, smartphones and other electronic devices.

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