What You Need To Know About Open Source Licensing

Open source is a blanket term to describe software whose source code can be freely distributed and modified. As an individual or business with no intention of redistributing or showing the software publicly, this may be all you need to know. If you intend to use a particular open source technology as part of your product, it’s worth understanding the more common licenses.

There are many ways to make money in software. Among them are selling media containing free software, access to software being run on your own servers, service contracts, and licensing the software itself. The last example is the most nuanced, and will be the focus of this post.

This is just a quick overview, not specific legal advice. Consult your attorney for guidance for your particular situation.


Most open source software is licensed under two categories of licenses. The first is Berkeley Standard Distribution (BSD) and its derivatives. The second is the GNU Public License (GPL).

Software released under the BSD license is free for all use. From a commercial perspective, this means you can use any source code under the BSD license as a component part of your product, then license that product for use under your own license. The MIT license family, which also falls roughly into this “free for all use” category, functions similarly to BSD except that the original authors must be credited and the original license included in the newly distributed software. The Apache 2.0 license, which Google and many other software companies prefer, takes BSD a step further and issues the user the rights to any patents the authors held that are represented in the software.

The GPL license was popularized by Linus Torvalds when he wrote Linux to work with GNU standard libraries and tools. Software distributed under the GPL license is not free for all use. Any code linked to GPL software, if distributed, must be distributed under the GPL license with the full source code.

The Mozilla license is a sort of hybrid that walks the line between BSD and GPL. Mozilla wants the core browser to remain open source while allowing developers to decide how to license their plugin.

SaaS implications

Most mobile and web apps today are sold as a service, meaning the software does not need to be distributed. The output of a software program is not subject to restrictions set forth in the GPL, so you area free to monetize your GPL-derived software accordingly.

For more in-depth information, check out the Open Source Initiative or Wikipedia.

Modern software cannot run without depending on someone else’s intellectual property, so it’s important to understand the implications of the platform you’re developing your product for, especially when depending on another product as a foundation for your product. Stay on top of the technologies you are incorporating into your product to maintain the integrity of your intellectual property.