Which is the best license for my Open Source project?

| | August 5, 2015

I am a web developer, and I don’t have enough knowledge about software licenses. I wish to publish some of my works, and I need to select licenses for them. My software product is free of cost, but I have some restrictions on distribution/modification of the code.

  1. It’s free of cost (but donations are acceptable).
  2. The source code is freely available. You can use, customize or edit/remove code (as long as the basic nature of the software is not changed).
  3. You don’t have any permission to change the product name.
  4. There are some libraries and classes which are in a folder called “myname”. You don’t have permission to rename “myname”.
  5. You can contribute any additions or modifications to my project, to the original source repository (the contributor’s name/email/site link will be listed in the credit file).
  6. You can’t remove the original author’s name from the license.
  7. You can put the license file or license code anywhere in the project file or folder.
  8. You can redistribute this code as free or commercial software.

Are all these restrictions valid? Given these restrictions, which license should I use?

My main intention is to make the product more popular with free source code while ensuring the original author is not ignored. The product is open.

Thank you all; the above points are because of my lack of knowledge of license terms.
You can help me to correct or remove some of the above points. What I’m basically looking for is in the paragraph above.

7 Responses to “Which is the best license for my Open Source project?”

  1. As others have noted, you have some rather odd requirements:

    • “Don’t deviate the basic nature of the software.” (Do you specify the “basic nature of the software” in the program itself, and are you going to argue in court over something so vague?)

    • “You don’t have any permission to change the product name.” (Usually, if anything, the opposite is required: if you change it, you have to change the name, so people don’t think that the modifications represent your work.)

    • “There are some libraries and classes which are in a folder called ‘myname’: you don’t have permission to rename ‘myname’.” (Similar to the first, but more concrete — though I’m not sure what the point of this is.)

    Based on these requirements, I think the license which fits most closely with your stated desires is the GNU Free Documentation License. As indicated by the title, it’s almost never used for source code of programs.

    It is the only license I know of which allows you to prohibit users from changing or improving specific parts of the work. For example, I think you could say that the folder “myname” is an “invariant section” (note that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice).

    It’s not compatible with the GPL, and (the way you’d use it) it’s not DFSG-free. It’s rarely used for software, so distributors and contributors might have trouble understanding how to apply it. In short, you probably wouldn’t be making any friends with this route.

  2. I think you will have a hard time finding an existing license to fit your needs because you seem to require two separate sets of permissions: a MIT-like set of permissions for the source in general, with the exception of a locked-down “myname” folder. You may be better off separating your code into two separate parts, each with a different license. The MIT license seems to fit your conditions for the bulk of the code (except for the “basic nature of the software” statement, I’m not sure what you mean by that). The MIT license requires the copyright statement bearing your name to be retained in all copies of the source, so this would address the concerns you bring up in your first edit. Depending on the particular reasons why you need to add special restrictions for the “myname” folder, you may have to write a custom license (you can take an existing one that’s close and simply tweak it) that governs only that folder. Your entire project doesn’t have to fall under a single license.

    3) You don’t have any permission to
    change the product name.

    You might be asking for problems with this one. If someone takes your code, enhances it, and releases it with the same name then you will have two very different programs out there with the same name. This is very confusing for potential users. Is the the original version? The version that was modified with a German-language interface? The version that has a fix for a specific bug? When they all have the same name, it’s difficult to determine. If a user has a bad experience with a particularly buggy (or worse, virus-infected) derivative work, they will be unlikely to use any version of your software because it appears to be the same program as the buggy version.

    I get the impression that you are mostly wanting to avoid having your work copied and completely re-branded without any acknowledgment of your involvement. I might suggest that instead of prohibiting name changes, require that derivative works reference your original product name (for example, “ShinyNewProgram – Powered By YourOriginalName”). Many open-source projects trademark their product names and a provision like your #3 would then be a violation of trademark law; the more common solution is to require a new name (to differentiate it from the original) and to require clear attribution of the original work.

  3. To get everything you want you will probably have to write your own license. This is not necessarily in your best interests. You are going to have to make a choice between popularity and control:

    • If you use an established license, you will have a very wide audience for your work, which will have a chance to become popular.

    • If you insist on certain restrictions (the name can’t be changed) you will keep greater control, but you will lose potential users; because lots of organizations won’t look at software with a nonstandard license.

    Your requirements are very close to BSD, and not that different from MIT. I recommend you browse the popular licenses blessed by the Open Source Initiative and choose the one you feel is closest to your desires. I’ve checked your edits, and if you insist that I make a recommendation, for your wishes I recommend the Simplified BSD license. It’s a good, popular license that is often used by developers who want their work to be very widely deployed.

    If you ask people in a README file not to fork your software and change the name, as a matter of personal preference rather than licensing terms, most people will honor your wishes.

  4. I’d argue that while the product may be free and “source code available”, that what you’re describing is not “Open Source”. Notably, you’re not letting people fork and/or repurpose the code, both of which are main features of an Open Source code base.

    By retaining copyright, no one can “take your name off” of your code, as they don’t possess copyright, but not being able to rename the project, or change the names of folders, that’s pretty extreme.

    So, I would suggest you think through your motivations behind releasing the code and from where these restrictions originiate.

  5. As written your requirements don’t fit into any specific license out there (that I know of), and since you are not looking to make money, getting a lawyer to draft one would be rather expensive, and fundamentally counter-productive.

    I suggest you look at licenses for different open source projects out there and see which one matches closely with what you want, and use that.

  6. I don’t think the following are currently covered by any license I am familiar with:

    • Don’t deviate from the basic nature of the software.
    • You can use/customize/redistribute as free or commercial, but you can’t change the name.
  7. BSD license should cover this. I have chosen it for my open-source stuff too.

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