Navigating the Maze of Open Source Licenses: A Guide for Developers



As the head of Intel’s Open Source Program Office, one of the most common questions I'm asked is, "Which open source software license should I use for my project?" It's a question that doesn't have a one-size-fits-all answer. In fact, my response is always the same: "It depends." 

Choosing the right open source license for your project is a critical decision that can have far-reaching implications. With myriad options available, each with its own set of terms and conditions, it's essential to carefully consider your project's goals, community norms, and compatibility with existing software ecosystems. 

Understanding the Landscape

Before diving into the specifics of choosing a license, it's important to understand the broader landscape of open source licensing. Open source licenses come in various forms, ranging from lax/permissive licenses like the MIT License and Apache License to reciprocal licenses like the GNU General Public License (GPL)

Lax/permissive licenses allow users to freely use, modify, and distribute the software, often with minimal restrictions. On the other hand, reciprocal licenses impose additional requirements, such as sharing modifications under the same license when distributing derivative works. 

Community Expectations

When contributing to an existing open source project, it's essential to understand and adhere to the community's norms and licensing requirements. Many projects have specific licensing guidelines, and deviating from these norms can lead to complications. It’s possible that a project maintainer might reject contributions made under any license other than the one they’ve specified, even if from a legal and practical perspective the licenses have no incompatibilities. “Know your audience,” and “go with the flow,” are two maxims to keep in mind when you’re making upstream contributions.  

The question of what license to choose becomes a little more interesting when the project is your own. For your own projects, consider your objectives and what you want recipients to be able to do with your code. If you most value broad adoption, a lax/permissive license may be appropriate. However, if you want to ensure that derivative works remain open source, a reciprocal license may be more suitable. 

Navigating License Compatibility

You also need to think about how your project fits into the existing ecosystem and will want to make sure that you choose a license that is compatible with the licenses of adjacent projects or dependencies. Choosing a license that is compatible with existing software ecosystems can prevent compatibility issues and facilitate collaboration with other projects. 

For example, if your project relies on third-party libraries or frameworks with specific licensing requirements, you'll need to ensure that your chosen license is compatible with these dependencies. Failure to do so could result in legal and practical challenges down the line. 

Practical Tips for Choosing a License

Here are some practical tips to help you choose the right open source license for your project: 

  1. Understand your project's goals: Consider what you want to achieve with your project and how you want others to use and contribute to it.
  2. Research existing licenses: Familiarize yourself with the various open source licenses available and their respective terms and conditions. 
  3. Consider community norms: If contributing to an existing project, adhere to the community's licensing guidelines and expectations. 
  4. Evaluate compatibility: Ensure that your chosen license is compatible with existing dependencies and adjacent projects. 
  5. Seek legal advice if necessary: If you're unsure about which license to choose or have specific legal concerns, consider seeking advice from legal experts specializing in open source licensing. 


Choosing the right open source license is a critical decision that can impact the success and sustainability of your project. Lengthy commentary and debate on the perceived merits or disadvantages of pretty much every open source or free software license can easily be found on the internet. I’ll not wade into that fray. In the end, the “right” open source license for your project is going to be the one that has terms that support your objectives, is compatible with other licenses in the relevant ecosystem, and is acceptable to your users. Getting that equation right doesn’t guarantee that your project will be a success, of course, but getting it wrong is almost certain to ensure failure.   

About the Author

Jessica Marz, Director of Open Source Program Office, Intel 

An expert at explaining legal concepts to software developers and software development concepts to lawyers, Jessica is responsible for defining and managing Intel’s open source approval policies and practices. She’s also an avid arts-and-crafter known for her creative reuse of materials. Find Jessica on LinkedIn