Book review: Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing

When you develop an open source work or use an open source work, it is important that you understand the license. A well written license protects both you and the user. According to the information found on the O’Reilly website, “Andrew M. St. Laurent is an experienced lawyer with a long-time interest in intellectual property, particularly software licensing”. Rest assured, after reading this book you will have a new appreciation for those who work daily with licensing issues.

The book’s cover

At first, I was a little intimidated by the overwhelming number of licenses available. There are so many licenses that would seem to have the same purpose; keeping our software free (as in freedom). But simply looking at the index, I quickly realized there must be something more to this topic. The author has done a thorough job of breaking down each license and explaining what each section of the license is accomplishing. If you have struggled in the past, as I have, to read an entire End User License Agreement (EULA) in one sitting, this will walk you through it one step at a time. It might not make them any more entertaining to read, but now you will be able to better understand what you are reading. This is one of the prices we pay for creating or using free software—making sure we keep it free.

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”—Thomas Jefferson

The contents

At 193 pages, this is not a thick book. But it is not a book you will want to read through all at once. Page one will start you off with the basic principles of copyright law and later on includes some history lessons as well. The book not only describes the various open source licenses, but covers non-open source as well. Sun Microsystems Community Source License and Microsoft’s Shared Source Initiative are two that stand out. The last chapter includes a great section on choosing an open source license. It should help you to organize the issues when faced with having to make a choice.

Who’s this book for?

This book is for anyone (creator or user) who wants his or her works to be free. It is also for anyone who wants to incorporate other people’s work into their projects. Whatever the reason for your concern, free software licensing will be important to you. If it isn’t yet, it will be soon enough. More and more projects are being developed under the open source style of management. Understanding what the various licenses have to offer will insure that you make the best use of each one. Knowing how to properly license your works will also insure that others can make the best use of them as well.

Relevance to free software

I can’t imagine a book title more relevant to free software! There is a lot of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) out there today. Many shops are not sure how they can use free software. Any person who has tried to get free software accepted into a company knows those questioning looks and that uneasy feeling when asked “are you sure it’s free”. This book will allow you to study the license in more detail and help others to understand what the various licenses really mean. By being more informed, you can present a professional analysis to the boss and set their mind at ease. This extra effort insures that free software receives both a little more recognition and a little more respect. The licenses covered represent an enormous amount of work by very competent individuals.

We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.—William Faulkner


You should purchase this book because you care about freedom, both for yourself and for your end users. This book will show you the licenses, explain how they can be used, and give you the information needed to make informed decisions. Knowing the details, the factual ones and not the FUD, will make you the “go to” person when these type of questions arise. You will have the ability to really bring out the positive benefits of open source software. Open source licensing is what keeps freedom available for all.


This book was published in 2004. Be sure you keep track of the version numbers and make sure you reference the version that is right for you.

Title Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing
Author Andrew M. St. Laurent
Publisher O’Reilly Media, Inc.
ISBN 0596005814
Year 2004
Pages 193
CD included No
FS Oriented 10
Over all score 9

In short


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.