What Planet is This?

31 Jul 2005


Though I've used the GPL 2.0 commonly, I've now decided not to issue further code under it for two reasons. First, it allows commercial use. I don't think that anyone who exploits code commercially without remunerating the author to a polite extent deserves to use it. Second, it requires that all copies of the code contain a full version of the GPL. This made sense before obtaining a copy was made trivial by the web, but not anymore. So which license can I use as a good alternative?

Open source licenses, by definition, allow commercial use. If you want to use a license which is essentially open source but non-commercial, it would seem that the Creative Commons By-NC-SA 2.5 is an excellent choice. But though some people do use it, I've been told that Creative Commons do not officially sanction its use on programs, and instead suggest the GPL 2.0. Being the quintessential free software license, and hence allowing commercial use, it's no substitute.

Prof. Bernstein espouses a licence free approach, which I considered, whereby people's natural right to distribute patches fulfils the modification criterion. Software licensing, however, is a very social thing, and people won't incorporate your code unless they can be entirely sure of the terms of your license. The license free approach is, on the other hand, contentious and intangible, and for that reason Prof. Bernstein's software is not, for example, added to Debian. This is ironic because the GPL 2 itself does not conform to Debian's Free Software Guidelines.

Even open source minus commercial distribtion is enough to prevent people like Red Hat from including your code on their distros. I could write my own license, but I've been warned against doing so to avoid something like the Artistic License mess. If I were to write my own, it would probably come out something like my two favourite restatements of the public domain, the first by Woody Guthrie:

This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do.

And the second by Jon Hanna:

I really couldn't care less what anyone does with this, but claiming that they wrote it would be just sad and in asserting my right of intellectual property I assert my right to publicly ridicule anyone who does.

Though it wouldn't be public domain. Licensing is a form of either madness or etiquette, the overlap is large, in that it's a forced politeness. A forced common sense. If people always sought to do the right thing, a short statement of one's expectations would serve as a licence and natural common sense would fill in the rest. To that end, I once proposed haiku licensing, a kind of microlicense wherein you attempt to enumerate your reserved rights in haiku verse structure. The best I could come up with was "Keep attribution / Retain this haiku license / No commercial use".

John Cowan believes the haiku microlicense idea to be silly (though clever as a game), because it's too complex a field for amateurs. That it may be, but the point of this particular game was also orthogonal to the license choice problem in that it attempts to solve the license inclusion problem too, i.e. the second reason why I decided to ditch the GPL.

The author is the only arbiter of politeness concerning the redistribution of their hard work, and therefore has to publish conservative but be amenably liberal. I would like to publish code under a vanilla attribution, share-alike, non-commercial license, noting explicitly that the non-commercial aspect at least is flexible depending upon circumstance. Though I don't want my license to be branded by any organisation or movement, I recognise that expert endorsement is a must.

Is there any license that fulfills these criteria? Is it even possible?

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Licensing", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/licensing


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The trouble with "no commercial use" is it's so damn vague. If I, a geek, use your software at my business, is it commercial use? Is it only commercial use if it furthers my employer's interests? Does it have to *directly* further them, or is it enough if it does something for me that frees me up to do less infrastructure stuff and more direct moneymaking stuff? Or do I have to be the proprietor? If I'm Red Hat, can I put your stuff on my distro? How about on the freeware disk you (used to) get with Solaris? What about CheapBytes, who only charge for the media? What about download sites who make their money from ads, but nobody would go there if they didn't have your stuff (and other people's stuff) to download?

Et cicero.

John Cowan, Sun Jul 31 21:17:11 2005


Periodical essays on linguistics, history, and much more, from Shakespeare to post Romano-​British findings. Like Notes and Queries sans the queries and solely antiquarian disposition.

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