GitHub Introduces Licenses API
Written by Janet Swift   
Tuesday, 24 March 2015

GitHub recently introduced its Licences API, available in Preview. It also presented some statistics about license usage over its history.

GitHub is often criticized for its lax approach to software licencing. It deosn't require users to specify a licence when setting up a new project and its previous attempt to encourage users towards licensing their projects had a limited effect as shown in this chart:



The spike in the graph from around 15% to over 20% corresponds to the introduction of, a license picker with information about different options. Even here, however, users are let off the hook with the final option being:




The information presented if you explore this option is:

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.

It goes on to remind users that GitHub's terms of service allows other users to view and fork any repository. 

But as the blog post Open source license usage on argues:

Open source simply isn't open source without a proper license. Unless you've explicitly told others that they can modify and reuse your work, you've only showed others your code; you haven't shared it. 

The ethos of open source is to encourage others to use and modify your code. When a project is forked it automatically inherits its license - although it can then be subsequently changed or removed and when code has no license tends to discourage its use for fear of getting involved in copyright problems.

The new Licences API is designed to licensing more transparent; to make it easier for open source developers to licence their code and for open source consumers to discover what license is in force.

The API, which is in preview, retrieves information about a project's license file:


It also provides a template to make it easier to add a LICENSE file to a project.


One weakness with the API as it is currently implemented is its focus on the LICENSE file. Many projects place their licenses in a file named COPYING following the convention used by the GNU project. 


The introduction of ChooseALicence did influence behavior. Its three explicit recommendations were for MIT, Apache, and GPLv2, all of which show increased uptake in this chart:



Hopefully the Licenses API will also have the desired effect of encouraging licence use of GitHub. 

More Information

Open source license usage on

Licenses API 

Related Articles

GitHub Adds Licensing Option

The Easy Guide To Software Licences


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