What does Copilot Mean for Open Source?

Everyone’s been talking about GitHub’s recently announced Copilot tool, a new AI-powered code assistant. So, we started by asking ourselves, “Is this tool a net positive for the open source community?” The answer is “Maybe” but with some caveats. In addition to their significant community of pragmatic collaborators (many of whom fail to specify any license let alone an open source one), GitHub has become in many ways the default place where open source communities work together. That unique position comes with some inherent responsibility. 

We’ve considered a wide range of opinions from legal experts and the consensus seems to be that it’s unlikely Copilot involves any breach of US law on copyright. That doesn’t mean it’s OK to use the broad corpus of open source code as a training resource for an AI, though. Developers gave Github the broad copyright permissions that are in their Terms of Use so the service could be provided and improved, but that doesn’t mean they want to see their code laundered and reprocessed by a built-in tool in an editor. 

So is Copilot code going to be considered a reasonable use of that corpus, a violation of trust (or even maybe copyright), or will AI eventually just be how most code gets written? It’s truly too early for a conclusive hot-take. The open source community is probably more aligned with the idea of treating the use of publicly available code *for learning purposes* as an activity outside the confines of copyright law altogether than the folks who were hosting proprietary code on GitHub are, but this is still new territory. 

Understanding what’s legal is not enough; it’s also vital to understand what is respectful and advances the common good. Community engagement — with the goal of a shared understanding and eventually a standard of best practice for open source developers and lawyers — is sorely needed on this topic.

We’d like to see a process that includes open source organizations and the global open source legal and policy community. This new approach to coding is a great time for GitHub to strengthen the lines of communication between various open source organizations and stakeholders. Josh Simmons, OSI Board President added, “Open source truly is all about community. We believe GitHub should take this opportunity to involve the international community of thinkers around open source licensing as they chart a path forward.”

As always, OSI is eager to see the open source ecosystem grow in a healthy manner that embraces new open source technologies. We look forward to finding a collaborative path forward that both serves growth and principle and builds bridges. We’re really excited to see where this next era of code development will lead. We encourage GitHub to work with us and others to engage open source developers and users and to seek ways to make their tool embody rather than frustrate the collective vision of the open source community.