A free license or open license is a license that allows copyrighted work to be reused, modified, and redistributed. These uses are normally prohibited by copyright, patent or other Intellectual property (IP) laws. The term broadly covers free content licenses and open-source licenses, also known as free software licenses.


Network of licenses (and years of license creation)

The invention of the term "free license" and the focus on the rights of users were connected to the sharing traditions of the hacker culture of the 1970s public domain software ecosystem, the social and political free software movement (since 1980) and the open source movement (since the 1990s).[1] These rights were codified by different groups and organizations for different domains in Free Software Definition, Open Source Definition, Debian Free Software Guidelines, Definition of Free Cultural Works and The Open Definition.[2] These definitions were then transformed into licenses, using the copyright as legal mechanism. Ideas of free/open licenses have since spread into different spheres of society.

Open source, free culture (unified as free and open-source movement), anticopyright, Wikimedia Foundation projects, public domain advocacy groups and pirate parties are connected with free and open licenses.

Free software license

Main articles: open-source license and free software license

A pie chart displays the most commonly used open source license as Apache at 30%, MIT at 26%, GPL at 18%, BSD at 8%, LGPL at 3%, MPL at 2%, and remaining 13% as licenses with below 1% market share each.
Popular free and open source licenses include the Apache License, the MIT License, the GNU General Public License (GPL), the BSD Licenses, the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) and the Mozilla Public License (MPL).

Free software licenses, also known as open-source licenses, are software licenses that allow content to be used, modified, and shared.[3] They facilitate free and open-source software (FOSS) development.[4] Intellectual property (IP) laws restrict the modification and sharing of creative works.[5] Free and open-source licenses use these existing legal structures for an inverse purpose.[6] They grant the recipient the rights to use the software, examine the source code, modify it, and distribute the modifications. These criteria are outlined in the Open Source Definition and The Free Software Definition.[7]

After 1980, the United States began to treat software as a literary work covered by copyright law.[8] Richard Stallman founded the free software movement in response to the rise of proprietary software.[9] The term "open source" was used by the Open Source Initiative (OSI), founded by free software developers Bruce Perens and Eric S. Raymond.[10][11] "Open source" is alternative label that emphasizes the strengths of the open development model rather than software freedoms.[12] While the goals behind the terms are different, open-source licenses and free software licenses describe the same type of licenses.[13]

The two main categories of free and open-source licenses are permissive and copyleft.[14] Both grant permission to change and distribute software. Typically, they require attribution and disclaim liability.[15][16] Permissive licenses come from academia.[17] Copyleft licenses come from the free software movement.[18] Copyleft licenses require derivative works to be distributed with the source code and under a similar license.[15][16] Since the mid-2000s, courts in multiple countries have upheld the terms of both types of license.[19] Software developers have filed cases as copyright infringement and as breaches of contract.[20]

Free content license

Main article: Free content § Licenses

Definition of Free Cultural Works logo, selected in a logo contest in 2006[21]

According to the current definition of open content on the OpenContent website, any general, royalty-free copyright license would qualify as an open license because it 'provides users with the right to make more kinds of uses than those normally permitted under the law. These permissions are granted to users free of charge.' However, the narrower definition used in the Open Definition effectively limits open content to libre content. Any free content license, defined by the Definition of Free Cultural Works, would qualify as an open content license.


By type of license

By type of content

By authors

See also


  1. ^ Kelty, Christpher M. (2018). "The Cultural Significance of free Software - Two Bits" (PDF). Duke University press - durham and london. p. 99. Prior to 1998, Free Software referred either to the Free Software Foundation (and the watchful, micromanaging eye of Stallman) or to one of thousands of different commercial, avocational, or university-research projects, processes, licenses, and ideologies that had a variety of names: sourceware, freeware, shareware, open software, public domain software, and so on. The term Open Source, by contrast, sought to encompass them all in one movement.
  2. ^ Open Definition 2.1 on opendefinition.org "This essential meaning matches that of “open” with respect to software as in the Open Source Definition and is synonymous with “free” or “libre” as in the Free Software Definition and Definition of Free Cultural Works."
  3. ^ Coleman 2004, "Political Agnosticism".
  4. ^ Rosen 2005, pp. 73–90.
  5. ^ Rosen 2005, pp. 22–23.
  6. ^ Rosen 2005, pp. 103–106.
  7. ^ Greenbaum 2016, pp. 1304–1305.
  8. ^ Oman 2018, pp. 641–642.
  9. ^ Williams 2002, ch. 1.
  10. ^ Carver 2005, pp. 448–450.
  11. ^ Greenbaum 2016, § I.A.
  12. ^ Brock 2022, § 16.3.4.
  13. ^ Byfield 2008.
  14. ^ Smith 2022, § 3.2.
  15. ^ a b Sen, Subramaniam & Nelson 2008, pp. 211–212.
  16. ^ a b Meeker 2020, 16:13.
  17. ^ Rosen 2005, p. 69.
  18. ^ Joy 2022, pp. 990–992.
  19. ^ Smith 2022, § 3.4.1.
  20. ^ Smith 2022, § 3.4.
  21. ^ Logo contest on freedomdefined.org (2006)
  22. ^ PDDL 1.0 on opendatacommons.org