Android License Transparency, It’s Your Right


Karl Fogel, board member of the Open Source Initiative and QuestionCopyright staffer, recently posted a “modest proposal” on his personal blog. Karl suggests that mobile application marketplaces, most notably on Android, should make it obvious what license an application is released under before the user installs it.

Karl Fogel

It seems a reasonable enough request, so why isn’t it the standard already?

Open Source on Android

Everyone knows that Android is an open source operating system, but many don’t realize that the actual applications that run on top of Android are often anything but. In fact, most of Google’s own applications for Android (such as Google Music and GMail) are not open source at all. Look through the most popular applications on the Google Play Store, you may discover you’re hard pressed to find a reference to what license they are released under, let alone their source.

Just like in a traditional Linux distribution, their is no obligation that software developed for an open source operating system be open source itself. Free software licenses such as the GPL or Apache licenses don’t require that all software on a computer or device be free and open, only that the software which is covered by the license is.

So while it might go against the spirit of an open source operating system to develop closed source applications for it, it’s very much allowed. Indeed, most would argue that running closed source software is an unfortunate necessity for many tasks.

Software Freedom

While the debate over the necessity of closed source applications is much too broad of a topic to even touch on here, everyone is pretty much in agreement that it should be the choice of the user as to what type of software they install on their own machine. If a user wants to install closed source software on an open source operating system, that is their right. Just as it is the right of other users to refuse to use any closed source software at all.

Karl explains very clearly on his blog his personal reasons for preferring open source applications:

I strongly prefer to install open source apps on my Android devices. When software is open source, I know it will always be maintained as long as it has a user base, and that no one can ever shut it down or take it away. This makes me much more willing to depend on it and invest time in learning it. Because I know other parties are making the same calculation — especially vendors who can provide third-party support — there’s a positive feedback loop, a virtuous circle that ensures I will never be p0wn3d by someone else’s monopoly over the code that runs on my devices.

Karl Fogel

Of course, an individual is under no obligation to explain their rationale for running a particular piece of software on their personal device, it’s their right to make their own choice. But for those of us who chose not to use closed source software, application marketplaces like the Google Play Store don’t make it easy. The only idea of “free” in these marketplaces is in terms of cost, not freedom.

Informing Users

The answer to this problem is really very simple. Make developers indicate which license their application is released under when they upload it into the Play Store, and clearly show that information to end users when they are browsing. Just as users expect an application to include a Changelog when they update, we should have the expectation to know what license we are agreeing to at the time of installation.

Karl’s Proposed Market

Karl goes on to say that displaying the license for each application doesn’t even have to be the default (even though it should be), but those of us who would like information should be able to opt-in.

While this would be an excellent addition to the Google Play Store, the realist in me says that Google is shooting for the mass market crowd that doesn’t even know what a software license is, let alone having an opinion on individual licenses. So it seems the chances of this becoming a standard feature aren’t very good.

Enacting Change

Fortunately for us, one of the many freedoms Android affords us is the ability to use alternative application marketplaces. Perhaps one of the alternative marketplaces such as AndroidPIT or SlideME will take up the challenge and start adding license information to their application listings. They already list more information about applications than the official Play Store does (such as whether or not an application requires root), so there is a precedent for providing the more technically inclined users with more information.

Until we get a marketplace that clearly indicates it, contact the developers of your favorite Android applications and ask them to be more upfront about the licensing of their software. If your favorite Android applications are already open source, then let others know about them to get the word out. If developers see a trend towards more license awareness, posting which license they use will become the norm, not an afterthought.

If this is something the community desires, we should be vocal in requesting it. Make Android license transparency a big enough deal, and somebody will have to listen.

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Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: .

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