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Permissive software license

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A permissive software license, sometimes also called BSD-like or BSD-style license,[1] is a free-software license which instead of copyleft protections, carries only minimal restrictions on how the software can be used, modified, and redistributed, usually including a warranty disclaimer. Examples include the GNU All-permissive License, MIT License, BSD licenses, Apple Public Source License and Apache license. As of 2016, the most popular free-software license is the permissive MIT license.[2][3]

Comparison table[edit]

Public domain & equivalents Permissive license Copyleft (protective license) Noncommercial license Proprietary license Trade secret
Description Grants all rights Grants use rights, forbids almost nothing (allows proprietization, license compatibility) Grants use rights, forbids proprietization Grants rights for noncommercial use only. May not be combined with copyleft. Traditional use of copyright; no rights need be granted No information made public
Software PD, CC0 BSD, MIT, Apache GPL, AGPL JRL, AFPL proprietary software, no public license private, internal software
Other creative works PD, CC0 CC BY CC BY-SA, Free Art License CC BY-NC Copyright, no public license unpublished


The following is the full text of the simple GNU All-permissive License:

Copyright <YEAR>, <AUTHORS>

Copying and distribution of this file, with or without modification, are permitted in any medium without royalty, provided the copyright notice and this notice are preserved. This file is offered as-is, without any warranty.


The Open Source Initiative defines a permissive software license as a "non-copyleft license that guarantees the freedoms to use, modify and redistribute".[6] GitHub's choosealicense website describes the permissive MIT license as "[letting] people do anything they want with your code as long as they provide attribution back to you and don't hold you liable."[7] California Western School of Law's newmediarights.com defined them as follows: "The 'BSD-like' licenses such as the BSD, MIT and Apache licenses are extremely permissive, requiring little more than attributing the original portions of the licensed code to the original developers in your own code and/or documentation."[1]

Comparison to copyleft[edit]

Copyleft licenses generally require the reciprocal publication of the source code of any modified versions under the original work's copyleft license.[8][9] Permissive licenses, in contrast, do not try to guarantee that modified versions of the software will remain free and publicly available, generally requiring only that the original copyright notice be retained.[1] As a result, derivative works, or future versions, of permissively-licensed software can be released as proprietary software.[10]

Defining how liberal a license is, however, is not something easily quantifiable, and often depends on the goals of the final users. If the latter are developers, for some it might be valuable to have the right to modify and exploit source code written by others and possibly incorporate it into proprietary code and make money with it (and therefore these see permissive licenses as offering them a "right"),[11] while for other developers it might be more valuable to know that nobody will ever capitalize what has mostly been their work (and therefore these see copyleft licenses as offering them a "right"). Furthermore, the final users might not be developers at all, and in this case copyleft licenses offer them the everlasting right to access a software as free software, ensuring that it will never become closed source – while permissive licenses offer no rights at all to non-developer final users, and software released with a permissive license could theoretically become from one day to another a closed source malware without the user even knowing it.

Permissive licenses offer more extensive license compatibility than copyleft licenses, which cannot generally be freely combined and mixed, because their reciprocity requirements conflict with each other.[12][13][14][15][16]

Comparison to public domain[edit]

Computer Associates Int'l v. Altai used the term "public domain" to refer to works that have become widely shared and distributed under permission, rather than work that was deliberately put into the public domain. However, permissive licenses are not actually equivalent to releasing a work into the public domain.

Permissive licenses often do stipulate some limited requirements, such as that the original authors must be credited (attribution). If a work is truly in the public domain, this is usually not legally required, but a United States copyright registration requires disclosing material that has been previously published,[17] and attribution may still be considered an ethical requirement in academia.

Advocates of permissive licenses often recommend against attempting to release software to the public domain, on the grounds that this can be legally problematic in some jurisdictions.[18][19] Public-domain-equivalent licenses are an attempt to solve this problem, providing a fallback permissive license for cases where renunciation of copyright is not legally possible, and sometimes also including a disclaimer of warranties similar to most permissive licenses.

License compatibility[edit]

License compatibility between common free and open-source software (FOSS) licenses according to David A. Wheeler (2007): the vector arrows denote a one directional compatibility, therefore better compatibility on the left side ("permissive licenses") than on the right side ("copyleft licenses").[20]

In general permissive licenses have good license compatibility with most other software licenses in most situations.[12][13]

Due to their non-restrictiveness, most permissive software licenses are even compatible with copyleft licenses, which are incompatible with most other licenses. Some older permissive licenses, such as the 4-clause BSD license, the PHP License, and the OpenSSL License, have clauses requiring advertising materials to credit the copyright holder, which made them incompatible with copyleft licenses. Popular modern permissive licenses, however, such as the MIT License, the 3-clause BSD license and the zlib license, don't include advertising clauses and are generally compatible with copyleft licenses.

Some licenses do not allow derived works to add a restriction that says a redistributor cannot add more restrictions. Examples include the CDDL and MsPL. However such restrictions also make the license incompatible with permissive free-software licenses.[citation needed]

Reception and adoption[edit]

While they have been in use since the mid-1980s,[21] several authors noted an increase in the popularity of permissive licenses during the 2010s.[22][23][24][25]

As of 2015, the MIT License, a permissive license, is the most popular free software license, followed by GPLv2.[2][3]

Other terms[edit]


A "permissive" license is simply a non-copyleft open source license.

Sometimes the word "permissive" is considered too ambiguous, because all free software licenses are "permissive", in the sense that they all allow to modify and redistribute the source code. In most cases the real opposition is between copyleft licenses and non-copyleft ones, thus some authors prefer to use the term "non-copyleft" instead of "permissive".[27][28][26]


Berkeley had what we called "copycenter," which is "take it down to the copy center and make as many copies as you want."

Copycenter is a term originally used to explain the modified BSD license, a permissive free-software license. The term was presented by computer scientist and Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) contributor Marshall Kirk McKusick at a BSD conference in 1999. It is a word play on copyright, copyleft and copy center.[29][30]

Pushover license[edit]

We call them “pushover licenses” because they can't say “no” when one user tries to deny freedom to others.."

— Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU operating system[31]

In the Free Software Foundation's guide to license compatibility and relicensing, Richard Stallman defines permissive licenses as "pushover licenses", comparing them to those people who "can't say no", because they are seen as granting a right to "deny freedom to others."[31] The Foundation recommends pushover licenses only for small programs, below 300 lines of code, where "the benefits provided by copyleft are usually too small to justify the inconvenience of making sure a copy of the license always accompanies the software".[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c New Media Rights (2008-09-12). "Open Source Licensing Guide". California Western School of Law.
  2. ^ a b "Top 20 licenses". Black Duck Software. 19 November 2015. Archived from the original on 19 July 2016. Retrieved 19 November 2015. 1. MIT license 24%, 2. GNU General Public License (GPL) 2.0 23%, 3. Apache License 16%, 4. GNU General Public License (GPL) 3.0 9%, 5. BSD License 2.0 (3-clause, New or Revised) License 6%, 6. GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) 2.1 5%, 7. Artistic License (Perl) 4%, 8. GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) 3.0 2%, 9. Microsoft Public License 2%, 10. Eclipse Public License (EPL) 2%
  3. ^ a b Balter, Ben (2015-03-09). "Open source license usage on GitHub.com". github.com. Retrieved 2015-11-21. "1 MIT 44.69%, 2 Other 15.68%, 3 GPLv2 12.96%, 4 Apache 11.19%, 5 GPLv3 8.88%, 6 BSD 3-clause 4.53%, 7 Unlicense 1.87%, 8 BSD 2-clause 1.70%, 9 LGPLv3 1.30%, 10 AGPLv3 1.05%
  4. ^ Free Software Foundation, Various Licenses and Comments about Them, GNU All-permissive License
  5. ^ Information for Maintainers of GNU Software, License Notices for Other Files
  6. ^ permissive on opensource.org "A "permissive" license is simply a non-copyleft open-source license – one that guarantees the freedoms to use, modify and redistribute, but that permits proprietary derivatives."
  7. ^ Choosing an open-source license doesn't need to be scary on choosealicense.com "Which of the following best describes your situation? – I want it simple and permissive."
  8. ^ "What is Copyleft". GNU. Retrieved 21 April 2011.
  9. ^ "Categories of free and nonfree software". gnu.org.
  10. ^ Amadeo, Ron (21 July 2018). "Google's iron grip on Android: Controlling open source by any means necessary". Ars Technica.
  11. ^ With this in mind, the FreeBSD project advocates permissive licenses for companies and commercial use-cases: they say that they place only "minimal restrictions on future behavior" and argue that copyleft licenses are "legal time-bombs". See Montague, Bruce (2013-11-13). "Why you should use a BSD style license for your Open Source Project". FreeBSD. Retrieved 2015-11-28. 9. GPL Advantages and Disadvantages [..] 12. Conclusion
    In contrast to the GPL, which is designed to prevent the proprietary commercialization of open-source code, the BSD license places minimal restrictions on future behavior. This allows BSD code to remain open source or become integrated into commercial solutions, as a project's or company's needs change. In other words, the BSD license does not become a legal time-bomb at any point in the development process.

    In addition, since the BSD license does not come with the legal complexity of the GPL or LGPL licenses, it allows developers and companies to spend their time creating and promoting good code rather than worrying if that code violates licensing.
  12. ^ a b "Licence Compatibility". European Union Public Licence. joinup.ec.europa.eu. Archived from the original on 2015-06-17. Retrieved 2015-05-30. The licenses for distributing free or open source software (FOSS) are divided in two families: permissive and copyleft. Permissive licenses (BSD, MIT, X11, Apache, Zope) are generally compatible and interoperable with most other licenses, tolerating to merge, combine or improve the covered code and to re-distribute it under many licenses (including non-free or "proprietary").
  13. ^ a b Hanwell, Marcus D. (2014-01-28). "Should I use a permissive license? Copyleft? Or something in the middle?". opensource.com. Retrieved 2015-05-30. Permissive licensing simplifies things One reason the business world, and more and more developers [...], favor permissive licenses is in the simplicity of reuse. The license usually only pertains to the source code that is licensed and makes no attempt to infer any conditions upon any other component, and because of this there is no need to define what constitutes a derived work. I have also never seen a license compatibility chart for permissive licenses; it seems that they are all compatible.
  14. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions about the GNU Licenses – Is GPLv3 compatible with GPLv2?". gnu.org. Retrieved 2014-06-03. No. Some of the requirements in GPLv3, such as the requirement to provide Installation Information, do not exist in GPLv2. As a result, the licenses are not compatible: if you tried to combine code released under both these licenses, you would violate section 6 of GPLv2. However, if code is released under GPL "version 2 or later," that is compatible with GPLv3 because GPLv3 is one of the options it permits.
  15. ^ Landley, Rob. "CELF 2013 Toybox talk". landley.net. Retrieved 2013-08-21. GPLv3 broke "the" GPL into incompatible forks that can't share code.
  16. ^ "Interpreting, enforcing and changing the GNU GPL, as applied to combining Linux and ZFS". fsf.org. Retrieved 2020-06-08.
  17. ^ US Copyright Office Form CO; see also Ashton-Tate v. Fox
  18. ^ "OpenBSD Copyright Policy". The OpenBSD project. Retrieved 2020-06-09. In some jurisdictions, it is doubtful whether voluntarily placing one's own work into the public domain is legally possible. For that reason, to make any substantial body of code free, it is preferable to state the copyright and put it under an ISC or BSD license instead of attempting to release it into the public domain.
  19. ^ Hipp, D. Richard. "Why SQLite succeeded as a database". The Changelog. Also at the time I did not realize, having lived my whole life in the United States, which is, you know, under British common law, where the public domain is something that's recognized. I did not realize that there were a lot of jurisdictions in the world where it's difficult or impossible for someone to place their works in the public domain. I didn't know. So that's a complication.
  20. ^ The Free-Libre / Open Source Software (FLOSS) License Slide by David A. Wheeler on October 4, 2021
  21. ^ Haff, Gordon. "The mysterious history of the MIT License". opensource.com. Retrieved 2020-06-08. [There's] a good argument to be made that the MIT License, also called the X Consortium or X11 License at the time, crystallized with X11 in 1987, and that's the best date to use. You could argue it was created in 1985 with possible adjustments over the next couple of years.
  22. ^ Vaughan-Nichols, Steven J. "The fall of GPL and the rise of permissive open-source licenses". ZDNet. Retrieved 2015-11-28. The GPL is still the world's most popular open-source license but it's declining in use, while permissive licenses are gaining more fans, and some developers are choosing to release code without any license at all.
  23. ^ Ronacher, Armin (2013-07-23). "Licensing in a Post Copyright World". lucumr.pocoo.org. Retrieved 2015-11-18.
  24. ^ Aslett, Matthew (2011-06-06). "The trend towards permissive licensing". the451group.com. Archived from the original on 2015-10-13. Retrieved 2015-11-28.
  25. ^ Does your code need a license? Posted 02 May 2013 by Jason Hibbets "Q: Are there software-development companies favoring a certain open-source license over another? What is the trend in the community? A: We're definitely seeing some trends away from copyleft licenses—mostly towards permissive licenses"
  26. ^ a b "Frequently Asked Questions | Open Source Initiative". Open Source Initiative. Retrieved 2022-08-09. A 'permissive' license is simply a non-copyleft open source license
  27. ^ "Copyleft versus non-copyleft licenses in free / open source software". Qoppa Software. 2014-11-21. Retrieved 2022-08-09.
  28. ^ Sen, Ravi; Subramaniam, Chandrasekar; Nelson, Matthew L. (2011). "Open Source Software Licenses: Strong-Copyleft, Non-Copyleft, or Somewhere in Between?". Decision Support Systems. 52 (1): 199–206. doi:10.1016/j.dss.2011.07.004. ISSN 0167-9236. Retrieved 2022-08-09.
  29. ^ a b "Add Kirk's comment about "copycenter"; it's just too good to pass up". Historical FreeBSD fortune(6) database. Retrieved 2020-06-08.
  30. ^ Raymond, Eric S. "copycenter". The Jargon File.
  31. ^ a b Stallman, Richard (2016-02-08). "License Compatibility and Relicensing". Free Software Foundation. Retrieved 2019-09-29. In general, lax permissive licenses (modified BSD, X11, Expat, Apache, Python, etc.) are compatible with each other. That's because they have no requirements about other code that is added to the program. They even permit putting the entire program (perhaps with changes) into a proprietary software product; thus, we call them "pushover licenses" because they can't say "no" when one user tries to deny freedom to others.
  32. ^ How to choose a license for your own work – Free Software Foundation

External links[edit]