Why do you need a Licence?

Making your code available as open source is not just about making a remark on your web page

The expectations associated with the term open source may be perceived by some as a way to share your code without the restraints – be these legal or bureaucratic – that proprietary products are usually subject to.

However it is important that developers take into consideration that making your code available as open source is not just about making a remark on your web page that the code is licensed under an open source licence.

Most of the developers that I have spoken to do not have the inclination to read licences at length and weigh their pros and cons. This is simply something that they do not want to waste time on as they want to get on with their project, but it is time that they dedicated some thought to this. Today I am looking at the importance of having a licence and the potential pitfalls of ignoring this requirement.

A licence allows you to let people know that they can download and/or contribute to your project. You are not only telling the public that the code can legally be released under the licence you choose, as a project owner you are also informing them of their responsibilities once they download your project.

The aim of the licence is to set out the responsibilities which need to be adhered to by those wishing to modify or even reuse the open source software within their own projects. Clearly it is vital that you choose the best possible licence to allow you, as project owner, to sustain the project in the various ways you have intended.

Here are a few simple steps to consider:

Step 1:

Choose the most appropriate licence under which to release the code.

(An overview of the different licences available will be addressed in a future blog post.)

Step 2:

Are you legally entitled to release your code? Can you prove that your code is exclusively your intellectual property and you have the necessary rights to license it?

This is straightforward to determine when there is a small project team employed by one copyright holder and each contributor's contract states that the work is not their own and belongs to the copyright holder. However if your project team's contributors are a mix of contractors, those who have donated their code or whose code has been copied – you may not have outright copyright clearance.

The matter of claiming that a code is your own is not just about ethics, but can cross into the realm of legal sanctions if you cannot provide proof that you own this code.

Step 3:

Make the licence visible to those looking at your project.

"Visibility" is not just about making a quick reference on your project page that your code is available under a specified licence.

As a minimum:

I appreciate that the matter of licensing is somewhat of a minefield. With most projects having third party dependencies, a developer whose code includes libraries from another project must comply with the requirements of that licence, but also make sure it is compatible with your own licence. However licensing should not be something to fear, but a tool to make sure that those contributing to or downloading your code know exactly what they are allowed to do to ensure you retain control of your pro.

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