“To Be Esteemed, Be Useful”. A premise so simple and sound, it was one of the earliest mottos of the United States, appearing on their coinage of 1792. Sadly, it seems that this principle is ignored in the intellectual-property reform circuit.
I see a lot of people saying “I used a Creative-Commons style license on my project” or “It’s free under the Bla Bla Bla license” (substitute your favourite) and thinking they’re doing something about the abuse of the intellectual property system.
Just stop. These “permissive” licenses fail that fundamental test– they won’t maximize the overall usefulness of your work, so they deserve no esteem whatsoever. Instead of a simple goal of “get the most value out of my work”, you end up with a lot of compatibility and practical issues, all because we stuck to the framework of “I’m permitting you to do these things”.
I’m bundling here any licenses that allow redistribution with restrictions as permissive. Yes, they can be further analyzed seperately, but much of what’s said applies to the theme of permissive licensing, more so than specific choices.
Compatibility’s a Bitch
The first issue they create is the one of compatibility. The software people have tried to sort this one out, and there are even grand tables of “this plus this can/cannot be distributed.” Big deal. You’ve still got the problem of having to work around license compatibility, even if there’s a cheat sheet to follow.
This has lead to some comical situations. For example, if I wanted to re-package Zen-Cart with some of its best after-market addons, streamlining deployment and saving users dozens of man-hours, although both are licensed “GPL”, the combination can’t be shipped. The GPL version 2 of the main body didn’t match up with the version 3 of the addons.
Stop Enforcing Your Values
Second, not everyone is able to fit into the same licensing framework that you idealize. For example, even if you want to release fully open-source drivers for your widget, you may rely on modules supplied by third parties with different objectives, or face a regulatory or cultural situation which requires you provide “security through obscurity”. I doubt the FCC (or your local equivalent) wants to see end users having access to the “peak output power” control in wireless device drivers, and the banking industry really loves security-by-obscurity.
The opposite side of the coin also applies– perhaps your downstream contributors or users want to use a less restrictive license– for example, moving from GPL down to MIT, or even public-domain– and then your license choice actually becomes an impediment to further usefulness.
The end result is obvious by looking at a site like Freshmeat/Freecode– we have numerous projects which exist to build workalikes for things where the license was not suitable for the need. Real efficient.
The Cost of Compliance
Third, even without a financial cost, there’s the compliance cost. Just having to maintain the overhead of “this comes from A, and has license B attached” becomes a big deal fast, as the number of assets to manage grows. Everyone has to stop and check “could this be considered a derivative work of that?”– and possibly waste effort on replacing trivial elements just to ensure there’s no potential license toxicity. Also multiply it by different jurisdictions– the exceptions provided by Fair Use doctrine in the US don’t necessarily map 1:1 with those offered in other countries.
In addition, even if you’re keen on actually following the licenses to the letter, many of them have surprising catches buried in them. For example, the GPL requires those who distribute binaries to provide an offer for source code. Are you on the hook if you participate in a BitTorrent swarm to get a Linux ISO? Who’s going to be the test case in court?
What about attribution-based licensing– the BSD and MIT licenses, for example. Are they so terrible? Yes, in their own way. First, mandating attribution turns something that’s a moral judgement– “is the way I’ve used this work deserving of credit and/or is it plagarism?”– into a legalistic rule. Second, the requirements themselves can also become onerous. Remember the licenses on older BSD UNIX systems which required detailed credits to the contributors in the advertising? That may have made it more difficult to commercialize the product, explaining why Linux, not 386BSD, carried the day.
You Won’t Lose Your Identity
I can understand the fear– “what if my work becomes popular, but my contribution becomes anonymous?” Surprisingly little of an issue. Google is your friend– if people start celebrating “Bubba’s knockoff of your project”, all you need to do is show how yours was first, and strangely, 98% identical. You may even be able to show up the other contributor by offering deeper inside understanding or better services.
I can sort of sympathise the people who go “restrictive” with their works. There’s a lot of fear and a lot of concern– the easy-to-use “just sell copies and try to pretend that technology doesn’t exist” business plan which succeeded (for some people) for the last 50 years requires restrictive licensing and the law to back it up. It’s like the guy who goes to work in a franchise restaurant instead of becoming a chef and developing his own new restaurant.
However, if you already understand that you won’t halt unauthorized distribution of your work– which a permissive license choice suggests you do– then why insist on adding conditions which interfere with the work providing its greatest possible value?
What should you do instead? Embrace the truly unrestricted. Public Domain or the equivalent. Maybe you like the legalistic CC0, or the more in-your-face WTFPL. And for everyone else, let’s look for workarounds like setting up laws forcing mandatory licensing– allowing us to ‘flip the script’ from “What the author allows us to do” to “Here’s what we want to do, what do I have to pay to make it happen?”