Daryna Tkachenko

We discussed software licenses and gave a few tips for dealing with them in our previous article (check it out here if you missed it). This time, we decided to cover a few more intricate licensing questions, with the focus on free and open source software.

5 min read

Find a few historical myths about free and open source software (further referred to as FOSS) licenses busted in this article.

Myth Busted Logo from Same-Name TV Series.

Image source: TheNerdIsTheWord.ca

Myth 1: Open Source Software = Free Software

This is not always true. Price-wise, not all free software (more accurate term - proprietary freeware) is open source. Freedom-wise, not all open source software is free.

According to Richard Stallman, the founder of Free Software Foundation, the adjective “free” in the context of software should be interpreted as “the one that gives the user certain freedoms” (like free speech), not “the one at zero price” (like free beer). And this is not always the case with open source software. As OpenSource.com notes, though both “free software” and “OSS” refer to a similar set of licenses, each term emphasizes different values. Free software gives the user freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve the software, while open source software has a focus on collaboration and community of software users.

  • Though most free & open source software (FOSS) licenses are quite or very permissive, they are not equivalent to software in the public domain. Even permissive licenses may have certain stipulations, e.g., require attribution.
  • Some open source licenses are restrictive (copyleft), so some might argue they are not "free" in the sense of freedom to use software under their terms.

The most famous copyleft OSS license, GNU General Public License (GPL) could be used as an example of a license with strong stipulations: every derivative work utilizing a GPL-covered component, should be released under GPL too. This means that its source code should be open. GPL should be dealt with wisely. This is illegal to distribute a software product that utilized a GPL-covered component/tool under a proprietary license.

Following the above, another interpretation of the term “free software” is “not GPL-covered” - software that gives the user complete freedom with the source code and any derivatives.

Myth 2: OSS Can Not Be Used for Commercial Purposes

Open Source Initiative proves this myth is absolutely wrong. All OSS could be used for commercial purposes and sold. However, do not confuse the terms “commercial” and “proprietary.” The latter refers to software with closed source code, which contradicts the whole concept of OSS. If you utilize some component under OS license, you are free to sell the derivative but mind that can you not impose further restrictions on its users. So, people who purchased your software could then sell it too or distribute it for free.

Per copyleft license terms, you decide how to distribute your own software - either free of charge or for a $1K - yet you are obliged to make the derivative’s source code open. And you can certainly sell any supplementary services for the software, like technical support and maintenance, warranties, and other assurances.

Myth 3: Unlicensed Software Belongs to Noone, So Everyone Can Use It

This is not true.
Contrary to a stereotype, unlicensed software (not explicitly placed in the public domain) is fully copyright protected. No usage rights at all are granted per license terms. Until software is passed into the public domain or covered by a different license, it is not legally usable.

Similarly, if you release your source code without any license, then it is automatically copyrighted: no-one can reproduce, distribute, or create derivatives based on it. According to ChooseALicense.com, unless you include a license that specifies otherwise, nobody else can copy, distribute, or modify your work without being at risk of take-downs, shake-downs, or litigation.

Some websites where you can find somebody’s source code or publish your own code require users to accept their Terms of Services; this is a sort of copyright. In the case with GitHub, for example, by accepting the TOS, you grant others the rights to view and fork your repository and become eligible to do the same with others' repositories too.

A good GitHub practice is leaving a copyright notice in a project’s README file - so users could easily find it. In some cases, you can assume a lack of license is an oversight, so this would be fair if you ask an owner to add it or make a pull request to suggest one of OSS licenses for the project - here, MIT license was used as an example to do this.

Myth 4: Using OSS Is Riskier as, Unlike Proprietary Software Distributors, OSS Authors Do Not Provide Any Warranties

Neither proprietary software vendors nor OSS creators could grant 100% warranties for their product. Here’s an extract from proprietary Microsoft Software License for Windows Operating System (the same wording is to be found in many products by Microsoft, and of course you did not read it as you automatically clicked “Agree” to these terms):

Microsoft warrants that properly licensed software will perform substantially as described in any Microsoft materials that accompany the software... Microsoft excludes all implied warranties and conditions, including those of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, and non-infringement.

For most proprietary licenses, there is support and maintenance. Yet, software vendors strive to relieve themselves of responsibility as much as possible. Sometimes, they even distribute their software products under a so-called dual license: proprietary license for commercial use and OSS license for not-for-profit use.

According to FOSSA, in the average modern software product, over 80% of the source code shipped is derived from open source. OSS already became a critical part of today’s software industry. Even Microsoft releases some software under OS licenses. So you are safe to use both proprietary and OS software; if you do this wisely, you already mitigate the risks.

Myth 5: You Are Free to Release Own Software under Any License

This is not true if you utilized any copyleft-licensed components when creating your software product. Copyleft refers to the set of licenses, requiring both the original source and all its modifications (derivatives) to be distributed for free. Consider the first software copyleft licenses, the GNU General Public License (GPL), written by Richard Stallman - see Myth 1 above.

Yet another example of a license that dictates the terms for derivatives - Microsoft Public License (Ms-PL): any derivatives created using Ms-PL’ed components should be released under the Ms-PL too.

Myth Busters Team.

Image source: The Logic of Science

Do you know other FOSS myths and blind spots? Share them with us! We would be curious to know them.

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