License usage and changes: a large-scale study on gitHub

TitleLicense usage and changes: a large-scale study on gitHub
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsVendome, C, Bavota, G, Di Penta, M, Linares-Vásquez, M, German, D, Poshyvanyk, D
Secondary TitleEmpirical Software Engineering
ISSN Number1573-7616

Open source software licenses determine, from a legal point of view, under which conditions software can be integrated and redistributed. The reason why developers of a project adopt (or change) a license may depend on various factors, e.g., the need for ensuring compatibility with certain third-party components, the perspective towards redistribution or commercialization of the software, or the need for protecting against somebody else’s commercial usage of the software. This paper reports a large empirical study aimed at quantitatively and qualitatively investigating when and why developers adopt or change software licenses. Specifically, we first identify license changes in 1,731,828 commits, representing the entire history of 16,221 Java projects hosted on GitHub. Then, to understand the rationale of license changes, we perform a qualitative analysis on 1,160 projects written in seven different programming languages, namely C, C++, C#, Java, Javascript, Python, and Ruby—following an open coding approach inspired by grounded theory—on commit messages and issue tracker discussions concerning licensing topics, and whenever possible, try to build traceability links between discussions and changes. On one hand, our results highlight how, in different contexts, license adoption or changes can be triggered by various reasons. On the other hand, the results also highlight a lack of traceability of when and why licensing changes are made. This can be a major concern, because a change in the license of a system can negatively impact those that reuse it. In conclusion, results of the study trigger the need for better tool support in guiding developers in choosing/changing licenses and in keeping track of the rationale of license changes.

Short TitleEmpir Software Eng
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