GitHub on Licensing

Via Simon Phipps comes news that Github has taken some steps to address the “post open source” issue first labelled by James Monk (@monkchips) in this tweet:

The problem, of course, is that if you commit to Github without specifying a license, what this really means is that you get “all rights reserved.” People forking your code and working with it, or using it in their projects, are opening themselves up to legal risk.

Github launched a new site on licensing: The site presents a simplified overview of various license types:


It’s not a bad summary. They don’t include licenses like the Affero GPL in the main summary, but it is available in the longer list along with a variety of others.

They also updated the repository creation process to include a license selector, though it is defaulted to “none.” As Phipps points out, Github does provide this guidance about the “no license option”:

You’re under no obligation to choose a license and it’s your right not to include one with your code or project. But please note that opting out of open source licenses doesn’t mean you’re opting out of copyright law.

You’ll have to check with your own legal counsel regarding your particular project, but generally speaking, the absence of a license means that default copyright laws apply. This means that you retain all rights to your source code and that nobody else may reproduce, distribute, or create derivative works from your work. This might not be what you intend.

Even in the absence of a license file, if you publish your source code in a public repository on GitHub, you have accepted the Terms of Service which do allow other GitHub users some rights. Specifically, you allow others to view and fork your repository.

If you want to share your work with others, please consider choosing an open source license.

Given that perspective, why wouldn’t they simply default to MIT or Apache? These would seem pretty non-controversial choices, and would still allow users to choose “none,” as easily as users can opt out of the default readme file.

Check out these other responses to @monkchips‘ tweet:

As well as this excellent post from Luis Villa – Pushing back against licensing and the permission culture – which explores what more creative options might look like which don’t ignore licensing but try to make it more responsive to contemporary creators’ intent.