Post-Open Source

Github stickers

I’m a tad late to this discussion, but I think it’s still pertinent today—perhaps even more so—and Jordi Boggiano’s recent post, “Common files in PHP packages,” got me thinking about the lack of open source licenses in public repositories.

In his post, Jordi explains how he analyzed all packages at Packagist, specifically for the sake of identifying common file names developers are using for their change logs. As part of that analysis, he was also able to tell how many projects have a license file, about which he writes:

55% [of PHP packages at Packagist] have a LICENSE file, that’s.. pretty disastrous but hopefully a lot of those that don’t at least indicate in the README and composer.json

In a 2013 analysis of software licenses on Github, Aaron Williamson, then Senior Staff Counsel at the Software Freedom Law Center, found that 14.9% of repositories had a top-level license file, while 3.7% only announce the license in the project’s README1. Of the top licenses, he noted that there has been a significant shift since 2000 in favor of more permissive licenses (MIT, BSD, etc.) and surmises this could be the result of “corporate influence/allergy to GPL” or a reaction against the GPL, favoring “freedom of developer over freedom of users.” Why are so few repositories adding open source licenses?

Luis Villa posits it might be because developers are rejecting permission culture.

The open license ecosystem assumes that sharing can’t (or even shouldn’t) happen without explicit permission in the form of licenses. What if “post open source” is an implicit critique of that assumption – saying, in essence, “I reject the permission culture”?

So, when James Governor posted in September 2012 his sentiment about younger developers being about “post open source software,” it was perhaps a bit of tongue-in-cheek crotchety cane-shaking about a cultural shift in developer attitudes toward open source and the need to grant permission.

If we’re in a post-open source era and open source licenses represent permission granted to use one’s code, then is this era marked by a reaction against the need for that permission? After all, the “younger devs” grew up in a post-Napster world full of DRM, EULAs, IP/copyright lobbyists, and legalspeak about what we can and cannot do with the content and software we’ve purchased. Open source licenses are yet another way to proliferate that permission culture. It’s no wonder there’s a backlash against the need for licenses.

In Lawrence Lessig’s 2004 book Free Culture, Lessig warned:

Free cultures are cultures that leave a great deal open for others to build upon; unfree, or permission, cultures leave much less. Ours was a free culture. It is becoming much less so.

Are open source licenses just another manifestation of the shift to a permission culture and away from a free culture? While companies have embraced open source software and many contribute back to open source projects under a variety of permissive licenses, I can’t help but feel that open source is losing its soul. These days, I don’t hear people talking about it as a philosophy. Rather, the focus is always on licensing and business cases—the permission to use it.

What do you think? Do open source licenses propagate permission culture? Are we in a post-open source era?

  1. The analysis used FOSSology to examine 1,692,135 Github repositories out of about 6 million. Alternate locations of licenses could not be accounted for (file headers, subdirectories, unexpected file names, etc.).