A Licence Odyssey

My last post made me revisit an internal debate that I’ve been having for a number of years: what licence should I publish my works under? There has been plenty of work done on this with regards to software, but what about documentation and other works? What licence can I use for my guide to Linux and FLOSS, or just for my blog?

If I was a coder and not a writer, the answer in my mind would be much simpler. The GNU GPL allows me to give back to the community from which I have gained so much, and it also allows me to leverage a vast horde of pre-existing code.

The culture in other creative areas appears to be somewhat different. I often see licences such as the Creative Commons, using combinations of the Share Alike, Attribution, Non-Commercial, and No Derivative Works clauses. I see several problems with these. Share Alike is most in line with my principles, being in the same quid pro quo spirit of copyleft. Attribution is reminiscent of the ‘obnoxious’ advertising clause in the original BSD licence, and as far as I can see carries the same potential problems. Non-Commercial restricts works to the amateur field. As long as changes are shared back in their entirety to help everyone, why shouldn’t anyone be allowed to commercially benefit? There is hardly a scarcity of projects in the Free Software realm that are improving in leaps and bounds thanks to commercial input. Because those improvements need to be shared back, everyone benefits. No Derivative Works is a restriction that puts the work behind glass for people to look at but not touch. It’s no different from freeware. What’s the point?

Should works such as prose, documentation, graphics, audio and video be treated any differently from code? All of the Creative Commons licences have an Attribution provision. Many of us in the Free Software community would baulk at that, just as we did with XFree86. I understand that people like to be credited for their work, but is it worth it if it comes at the expense of the community as a whole? If I’m going to be basing my work upon that of others, must I spend time and effort ensuring that I’m legally abiding by all the attribution provisions? Do I need to bookend it with a long list of credits? If I was writing software, do I need an About menu item that includes everyone in the White Pages, along with their genealogy stretching back to Creation?

It looks like a Creative Commons licence with only a Share Alike provision would suit my needs, but such a beast doesn’t exist. Is there a reason why creators of non-code works don’t feel the same sense of community as coders? Why the strong need for recognition?

Let’s look at one example. All Wikipedia content is published under the GNU Free Documentation License (sic). Nobody seems to mind posting without attribution within the articles. This encourages easy and unrestricted editing, ranging from simple spelling/grammar corrections to establishing a new article or rewriting an existing one. The attributions are automatically kept separately, in the wiki history. Similarly, established code projects almost always have some sort of revision control system to manage and track contributions.

Can this be done with other, non-code projects? Wikis often work well for text. Document management systems like Alfresco and Plone exist for more complicated document arrangements, but the emphasis is still on text. I have seen efforts for other kinds of media, but I have no idea how mature or appropriate those are. Nevertheless, it is often too complex and burdensome for the average person to implement such systems.

That brings us back to my legal navigations through the sea of licensing. At first look, the GNU Free Documentation License looks like the way to go. With the Free Software Foundation and Wikipedia seal of approval, how could one go wrong? Not so fast there, mate. Examination by the debian-legal team found it to not be in compliance with the Debian Free Software Guidelines. This is in disagreement with the Free Software Foundation (who don’t believe there’s a problem), but regardless it means that if I choose this licence my work will never be compatible with Debian. That is not something I can be comfortable with. Unfortunately, debian-legal don’t explicitly seem to offer any alternative licence to use. Most of their documentation I have examined, like the Debian New Maintainers’ Guide, go with the GPL. Their own Web site has chosen the Open Publication License (sic). This is more likely than not to be an artefact of the past: Wikipedia calls the licence “largely defunct“.

Obviously, Debian isn’t the only game in town. Let’s see what some of the other major FLOSS projects are up to. Both GNOME and KDE have standardised their documentation around the GNU FDL. Ubuntu and Gentoo use the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike licence, with the notable exception of the Ubuntu Packaging Guide, which is GPL to maintain compatibility with Debian development documentation. Fedora make the effort to list and explain ‘good’ and ‘bad’ licences, for software, documentation, typefaces and other forms of content. They don’t mention the GPL for documentation or other non-code content.

That doesn’t mean that the GPL is not usable for non-code works. The Free Software Foundation don’t explicitly recommend the GPL for documentation, but they do have it listed as a licence “for works besides software and documentation“. They go on to explain: “The GNU GPL can be used for general data which is not software, as long as one can determine what the definition of “source code” refers to in the particular case.” I am not a lawyer — what exactly does this mean? I think it’s clear enough for documentation/prose, but for other content types this can get considerably more hairy. Is there a guide out there for using the GPL for non-code works? Something along the lines of the Software Freedom Law Center’s (sic) recently-released Legal Issues Primer for Open Source and Free Software Projects would be brilliant.

With these things considered, I’m currently leaning towards using the GPL for my work, perhaps with a little message requesting (but not requiring) attribution. As much as I can determine, this would not break compatibility with an unmodified GPL. Alternatively, I could just go with the GNU FDL, despite its shortcomings. I’d be interested to hear people’s wisdom, knowledge and experiences with this.

LotD: Best. Talk. Ever!