Aspects of Licenses

Although there are many different free software licenses available, in the important respects they all say the same things: that anyone can modify the code, that anyone can redistribute it both in original and modified form, and that the copyright holders and authors provide no warranties whatsoever (avoiding liability is especially important given that people might run modified versions without even knowing it). The differences between licences boil down to a few oft-recurring issues:

compatibility with proprietary licenses

Some free licenses allow the covered code to be used in proprietary programs. This does not affect the licensing terms of the proprietary program: it is still as proprietary as ever, it just happens to contain some code from a non-proprietary source. The Apache License, X Consortium License, BSD-style license, and the MIT-style license are all examples of proprietary-compatible licenses.

compatibility with other free licenses

Most free licenses are compatible with each other, meaning that code under one license can be combined with code under another, and the result distributed under either license without violating the terms of the other. The major exception to this is the GNU General Public License, which requires that any work using GPLed code be itself distributed under the GPL, and without adding any further restrictions beyond what the GPL requires. The GPL is compatible with some free licenses, but not with others. This is discussed in more detail in «The GPL and License Compatibility» later in this chapter.

enforcement of crediting

Some free licenses stipulate that any use of the covered code be accompanied by a notice, whose placement and display is usually specified, giving credit to the authors or copyright holders of the code. These licenses are often still proprietary-compatible: they do not necessarily demand that the derivative work be free, merely that credit be given to the free code.

protection of trademark

A variant of credit enforcement. Trademark-protecting licenses specify that the name of the original software (or its copyright holders, or their institution, etc.) may not be used by derivative works without prior written permission. Although credit enforcement insists that a certain name be used, and trademark protection insists that it not be used, they are both expressions of the same desire: that the original code's reputation be preserved and transmitted, but not tarnished by association.

patent snapback

Both the GNU General Public License version 3 and the Apache License version 2 contain language designed to prevent people from using patent law to take away the rights granted (under copyright law) by the licenses. They require contributors to grant patent licenses along with their contribution, covering any patents licenseable by the contributor that would be infringed by their contribution (or by the incorporation of their contribution into the work as a whole). Then they go further: if someone using software under the license initiates patent litigation against another party, claiming that the covered work infringes, the initiator automatically loses all the patent grants otherwise provided for that work by the license, and in the case of the GPLv3 loses their right to distribute under the license altogether.

protection of "artistic integrity"

Some licenses (the Artistic License, used for the most popular implementation of the Perl programming language, and Donald Knuth's TeX license, for example) require that modification and redistribution be done in a manner that distinguishes clearly between the pristine original version of the code and any modifications. They permit essentially the same freedoms as other free license, but impose certain requirements that make the integrity of the original code easy to verify. These licenses have not caught on much beyond the specific programs they were made for, and will not be discussed in this chapter; they are mentioned here only for the sake of completeness.

Most of these stipulations are not mutually exclusive, and some licenses include several. The common thread among them is that they place demands on the recipient in exchange for the recipient's right to use and/or redistribute the code. For example, some projects want their name and reputation to be transmitted along with the code, and this is worth imposing the extra burden of a credit or trademark clause; depending on its onerousness, that burden may result in some users choosing a package with a less demanding license.