Reading the Fine Print in Facebook React’s Open Source License

May 17, 2017 David Thompson

As enterprise adoption of open source continuously soars to new heights, giants of software have become major contributors to open source repositories. Facebook has long been considered an undisputed open source leader, with over 100 active repositories on GitHub.

One of Facebook’s most popular open source projects is React. React is a project driven by Facebook and Instagram that provides a JavaScript library for developing user interfaces. It was created to enable developers to build large applications with data that changes, and is intended to improve performance, while providing a simple programming model. Developers that use react say one of its advantages over other JavaScript libraries is that it takes a different approach to building applications, by allowing them to break the application down into separate components that are decoupled so that the different components can be maintained and iterated independently. Since Facebook open sourced ReactJS in 2013, some of the leading websites and online service providers have used it, including Apple, Microsoft, Khan Academy, Airbnb, Netflix, WordPress, some of the New York Times interactive media, and, of course, Instagram’s website which was built with React. The List of React users goes on and on.

Make Sure You Read the Fine Print: The Puzzling Patent Clause

A declarative, efficient and flexible open source JavaScript library that everybody’s using, from the company that loves a good share: what’s not to love? But before you start using it for your application, or adopt or purchase components that incorporate React, it might be a good idea to take a closer look at the license agreement, or, specifically - the patent clause - that Facebook created.

Download our free guide – Learn all you’ve ever wanted to know about open source licenses!

What You Need to Know About React’s Unusual Open Source License

Developer’s forums have been abuzz for the past two years over the patent clause attached to React’s license. About a year and a half after Facebook open sourced React with a standard Apache License 2.0, React replaced this with a 3-clause BSD license and added a separate, PATENTS text file, that provided rights to any Facebook patents relevant to each given project, along with a text file document titled “Additional Grant of Patent Rights” that included a clause stating that the license would be revoked if the software user were to initiate or participate in certain patent infringement lawsuits - including filing a patent lawsuit against Facebook or its affiliates. This unconventional clause caused quite a stir in the open source community, with developers concerned that this clause allowed Facebook to initiate patent lawsuits and restricted defensive lawsuits against them.

Due to the community’s outcry, Facebook updated the “Additional Grant of Patent Rights” clause that softened the termination provision to say that the React software user would not lose the right to use the software under Facebook patents in the special case in which the licensee brings a patent lawsuit that is a counterclaim against Facebook or its affiliates that is unrelated to React.js.

Still, parts of the open source community stick by their criticism of the patent clause, stating that the clause is an unnecessary addition to the standard BSD license – which doesn’t leave room for a licensor to successfully sue under patents, anyway; that the language of the agreement is not clear enough; and that the clause actually undermines the original definition of open source.

Is React Really Open Source?

Is it OK for a giant as big as Facebook - that’s branded itself as a champion of open source - to demand that developers adhere to a license that basically denies them the right to take legal action if they believe that their intellectual property is being used unlawfully?

The Open Source Initiative recently reacted to the React licensing debate by opening the issue up for discussion, but provided no verdict regarding the legitimacy of this type of license presenting itself as open source.

But while some open source developers and lawyers are recommending organizations avoid using react, others are defending the clause, saying it’s actually necessary for a company as big as Facebook to try to secure their patents since the BSD license arguably doesn’t; and that the React license actually protects its users by granting them patent license.

What does Facebook say? They posted an FAQ page for the BSD + Patents license, clearly stating that developers have nothing to worry about.

So as the debate rages on, the question remains: is Facebook’s priority to reap the benefits of an open source friendly image while keeping their patents and their money-makers safe, or are they actually legitimate partners in the open source bazaar?

 

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