SPDX License Expressions

yotta module and target description files use SPDX License Expression syntax to describe the licenses that apply to a module or target.

The full SPDX specification (currently version 2.0) is available here, but for ease of reference the portion of the document referring to license expressions is included below. It is a SPDX license-expression that should be used in the license fields module.json and target.json files.

Simple License Expressions

A simple <license-expression> is composed one of the following:

  • An SPDX License List Short Form Identifier. For example: GPL-2.0
  • An SPDX License List Short Form Identifier with a unary “+” operator suffix to represent the current version of the license or any later version. For example: GPL-2.0+
  • A SPDX user defined license reference: ["DocumentRef-"1*(idstring)":"]"LicenseRef- "1*(idstring) Some examples:


Composite License Expressions

More expressive composite license expressions can be constructed using “OR”, “AND”, and “WITH” operators similar to constructing mathematical expressions using arithmetic operators. For the tag/value format, any license expression that consists of more than one license identifier and/or LicenseRef, should be encapsulated by parentheses: ”( )”. This has been specified to facilitate expression parsing. Nested parentheses can also be used to specify an order of precedence which is discussed in more detail in subsection (4).

  1. Disjunctive “OR” Operator

    If presented with a choice between two or more licenses, use the disjunctive binary “OR” operator to construct a new lincense expression, where both the left and right operands are valid license expression values.

    For example, when given a choice between the LGPL-2.1 or MIT licenses, a valid expression would be:

      (LGPL-2.1 OR MIT)

    An example representing a choice between three different licenses would be:

      (LGPL-2.1 OR MIT OR BSD-3-Clause)
  2. Conjunctive “AND” Operator

    If required to simultaneously comply with two or more licenses, use the conjunctive binary “AND” operator to construct a new license expression , where both the left and right operands are a valid license expression values.

    For example, when one is required to comply with both the LGPL-2.1 or MIT licenses, a valid expression would be:

      (LGPL-2.1 AND MIT)

    An example where all three different licenses apply would be:

      (LGPL-2.1 AND MIT AND BSD-2-Clause)
  3. Exception “WITH” Operator

    Sometimes a set of license terms apply except under special circumstances. In this case, use the binary “WITH” operator to construct a new license expression to represent the special exception situation. A valid <license-expression> is where the left operand is a <simple-expression> value and the right operand is a <license-exception-id> that represents the special exception terms.

    For example, when the Bison exception is to be applied to GPL-2.0+, the expression would be:

       (GPL-2.0+ WITH Bison-exception-2.2)

    The current set of valid exceptions can be found in Appendix I, section 2. For the most up to date set of exceptions please see spdx.org/licenses. If the applicable exception is not found on the SPDX License Exception List, then use a single <license-ref> to represent the entire license terms (including the exception).

  4. Order of Precedence and Parentheses

    The order of application of the operators in an expression matters (similar to mathematical operators). The default operator order of precedence of a <license-expression> is:

    1. +
    2. WITH
    3. AND
    4. OR

    where a lower order operator is applied before a higher order operator.

    For example, the following expression: LGPL-2.1 OR BSD-3-Clause AND MIT represents a license choice between either LGPL-2.1 and the expression BSD-3-Clause AND MIT because the AND operator takes precedence over (is applied before) the OR operator.

    When required to express an order of precedence that is different from the default order a <license-expression> can be encapsulated in pairs of parentheses: ( ), to indicate that the operators found inside the parentheses takes precedence over operators outside. This is also similar to the use of parentheses in an algebraic expression e.g., (5+7)/2.

    For instance, the following expression: (MIT AND (LGPL-2.1+ OR BSD-3-Clause)) states the OR operator should be applied before the AND operator. That is, one should first select between the LGPL-2.1+ or the BSD-3-Clause license before applying the MIT license.


A yotta module which is licensed entirely and only under Apache-2.0 would use this in its module.json file:

  "license": "Apache-2.0"

Or a module which contains both some code licensed under BSD, and other code licensed under Apache-2.0 would use:

  "license": "(Apache-2.0 AND BSD)"

And a module which may be used at the user’s choice under either a custom license in the file LICENSE.txt, or under Apache-2.0, would use:

  "license": "(LicenseRef-LICENSE.txt OR Apache-2.0)"

If you have any questions about how to correctly describe the licenses that apply to your module, please open an issue on Github.

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