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GitHub to devs: pick a license, we dare you

Legalese confounds coders, so GitHub steps in to help

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When Microsoft announced back in January that its flagship development tools Visual Studio and Team Foundation Service would play nicely with Git, it was a sign that the tool and its online manifestation GitHub had become part of the programming furniture.

Many supporters chalk that status up as a win for all things open source. Others are less certain GitHub's always helping, because many projects on the site use highly contestable licenses.

That omission is problematic because unlicensed code's copyright rests with its author, without the coder having to do anything to claim it. Yet GitHub's legalese makes it plain that accepting forking is a condition for using the service but is otherwise vague on where rights rest.

That's led to some folks imagining a cunning coder posting something useful to GitHub without a license. The code is so useful, a third party uses it in a product that mints cash. The cunning coder could then, thanks to Copyright, have a legal lash at the product's owners.

That's obviously just the kind of thing GitHub would like to avoid, not least because it would almost certainly end up in court alongside the other parties. It's also just the kind of scenario the many open source licenses were created to prevent.

Little wonder then that the site has just taken steps to encourage its users to apply a licence when they create a new repository, with a new site choosealicense.com offering information on different licenses and the rights they afford. The site points out developers may be so focussed on code they can't confront the chore of picking a license. It also says coders aren't compelled to choose a license, but does also mention copyright complications.

It's also added a new feature that pops a license-selection menu front and centre when users create a new project. GitHub's made the MIT, Apache and GPL licenses most prominent, but also offers eleven others. Users who choose one of the offered licenses are offered the handy short-cut of a file containing the relevant text automatically appearing landing in their project's directory.

GitHub's been careful to point out its efforts are just guidance, with the following Disclaimer:

“We're not lawyers. Well, most of us anyways. It is not the goal of this page to provide legal advice. The goal of this page is to provide a starting point to help you make an informed choice. If you have any questions regarding the right license for your code or any other legal issues relating to it, it’s always best to consult with a professional.”

It's arguable that legal professionals may have gotten us into this mess: surely it won't be long before a troll-like entity starts sniffing around GitHub for something it can wave before a court. ®

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