You Think the Visual Studio Code binary you use is a Free Software? Think again.


Did you download your binary of Visual Studio Code directly from the official website? If so, you’re not using a Free Software and only Microsoft knows what was added to this binary. And you should think of the worst possible.

It says « Open Source » and offers to download non open source binary packages. Very misleading.

The Microsoft Trick

I’m not a lawyer, I could be wrong or not accurate enough in my analysis (sorry!) but I’ll try nonetheless to give my understanding of the situation because the current state of licensing of Visual Studio Code tries to fool most users.

Microsoft uses here a simple but clever trick allowed by the license of the code source of Visual Studio Code: the MIT license, a permissive Free Software license.

Indeed, the MIT license is really straightforward. Do whatever you want with this software, keeps the original copyright and I’m not responsible of what could happen with this software. Ok. Except that, for the situation of Visual Studio Code, it only covers the source code, not the binary.

Unlike most of the GPL-based licenses for which both the source code and the binary built from this source code are covered by the terms of the license, using the MIT license authorizes Microsoft to make available the source code of the software, but do whatever they want with the binary of this software. And let’s be crystal-clear: 99,99% of the VSC users will never ever use directly the source code.

What a non-free license by Microsoft is

And of course Microsoft does not use purposely the MIT license for the binary of Visual Studio Code. In fact they use a fully-armed, Freedom-restricting license, the Microsoft Software License.

Lets have a look at some pieces of it. You can find the full license here: https://code.visualstudio.com/license

This license applies to the Visual Studio Code product. The source code is available under the MIT license agreement.

First sentence of the license. The difference between the license of the source code and the « product », meaning the binary you’re going to use, is clearly stated.

Data Collection. The software may collect information about you and your use of the software, and send that to Microsoft.

Yeah right, no kidding. Big Surprise from Microsoft.

UPDATES. The software may periodically check for updates, and download and install them for you. You may obtain updates only from Microsoft or authorized sources. Microsoft may need to update your system to provide you with updates. You agree to receive these automatic updates without any additional notice. Updates may not include or support all existing software features, services, or peripheral devices.

I’ll break your installation without further notice and I don’t care what you were doing with it before, because, you know.

SCOPE OF LICENSE (…) you may not:

  • work around any technical limitations in the software;

Also known as « hacking » since… years.

  • reverse engineer, decompile or disassemble the software, or otherwise attempt to derive the source code for the software, except and to the extent required by third party licensing terms governing use of certain open source components that may be included in the software;

Because, there is no way anybody should try to know what we are doing with the binary running on your computer.

  • share, publish, rent or lease the software, or provide the software as a stand-alone offering for others to use.

I may be wrong (again I’m not a lawyer), but it seems to me they forbid you to redistribute this binary, except for the conditions mentioned in the INSTALLATION AND USE RIGHTS section (mostly for the need of your company or/and for giving demos of your products using VSC).

The following sections EXPORT RESTRICTIONS and CONSUMER RIGHTS; REGIONAL VARIATIONS include more and more restrictions about using and sharing the binary.

DISCLAIMER OF WARRANTY. The software is licensed “as-is.”

At last a term which could be identified as a term of a Free Software license. But in this case it’s of course to limit any obligation Microsoft could have towards you.

So the Microsoft software license is definitely not a Free Software license, if you were not convinced by the clever trick of dual licensing the source code and the binary.

What You Could Do

Some answers exist to use VSC in good condition. After all, the source code of VSC comes as a Free Software. So why not building it yourself? It also seems some initiatives appeared, like this repository. That could be a good start.

About the GNU/Linux distributions, packaging VSC (see here for the discussion in Debian) would be a great way to avoid people being abused by the Microsoft trick in order they use a « product » breaking almost any term of what makes a Free Software.

About Me

Carl Chenet, Free Software Indie Hacker, Founder of LinuxJobs.io, a Job board dedicated to Free and Open Source Jobs in the US.

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