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!