Cover image for Open Source Creator Series, Part 5: Understanding "Distribution" in Open Source Licensing
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Open Source Creator Series, Part 5: Understanding "Distribution" in Open Source Licensing

kevinsxu profile image Kevin Xu Originally published at coss.media ・2 min read

This is Part 5 of our Open Source Creator Series on "Understanding ‘Distribution’ in Open Source Licensing" to help you – the open source technology creators – understand and bootstrap some of the essential non-technical elements of building a successful project.

(See Part 1 – Licensing Fundamentals; Part 2 – Product Marketing; Part 3 -- How to Choose an Open Source License; Part 4 -- Documentation and Technical Writing 101)

Once again, this post is based on an informative and concise video presentation (~7 minutes) by Heather Meeker, who is the preeminent open source licensing expert and is a partner at OSS Capital. (If licensing, as a topic, is completely new to you, I would recommend first watching Heather's video in Part 1 of this series on Licensing Fundamentals and Part 3 on How to Choose an Open Source License.)

“What is distribution?” is a question Heather gets frequently from open source creators and commercial open source software (COSS) founders. It’s directly connected to “share”, which is the most nuanced of the four freedoms of open source. The others: “run”, “study”, “improve”, are more straightforward.

Knowing what “distribution” means is important before it’s a common trigger for various open source licensing requirements. In short: distribution is triggered when a copy of something (in our case software) is transferred to another person. However, “distribution” as a term is actually not defined in the U.S. Copyright Act, thus at least when applied in the United States, it’s often up to legal analysis and interpretation.

Hope you find Heather’s video useful. And don’t hesitate to reach out via Twitter or LinkedIn if you have questions.

Please note: This presentation does not constitute legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. The principles presented here may not apply to the facts of your situation.


  • Heather Meeker's Book, "Open Source for Business"

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COSS Media is a community knowledge platform that provides actionable insight to help Commercial Open Source Software (COSS) founders build lasting companies, many of whom are open source project creators, maintainers and community leaders.


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