OctocatAsk any developer where to turn for access to the latest software code for open source projects, and you’ll likely be directed to GitHub—one of the largest providers of open source code online.

While GitHub has always been a great site for developers to come together, network and share code, up until a few years ago, the website had a problem. Though it was easy for developers to share code, finding the right software license to go along with it was much harder. The majority of downloads on GitHub, therefore, were taking place without the critical software license component.

Why was this a problem? A software license is one of the most important aspects of any open source project. This document certifies a developer as the original creator and owner of the code, and it grants specific permissions as to how others can use it. There are many different software licenses solutions available, among them General Public License, or GNU, which allows use of the software on condition that the resulting code is also put back in the open source world with the same license (copyleft license). Other common licenses are the Lesser General Public License (LGPL) that allows usage of libraries without requiring divulgence of source code (weak copyleft) , or permissive licenses such as MIT and Apache.

While licenses are not required for open source projects, developers are strongly encouraged to use them as, without one, open source code that is placed into the public domain via a  service like GitHub is essentially unusable by anyone else.

In July 2013, GitHub addressed this problem by releasing a tool called choosealicense.com that makes it simple for developers to pick a software license for their code, and to understand how their code can be used. And just recently, GitHub released new data which shows that the service is accomplishing its intended task of increasing open source license usage with developers. In fact, license usage has increased by at least 20 percent since the tool was released, indicating that a greater number of developers are now using it.