Licence proliferation

In the most recent LugRadio, we discussed licence proliferation.

Our main conclusions were that:

  • licence proliferation is damaging to free software because it makes it harder to remember what rights each licence grants us
  • a licence picker, similar to that offered by Creative Commons, would aid understanding amongst projects and users
  • if the OSI doesn’t show leadership on licence proliferation, we need someone else to step up.

We already face a battle in explaining the benefits of free software to non-enthusiasts: licensing is something that rarely makes it onto the radar outside our community. We can make the job easier by talking about concrete benefits but the conversation becomes increasingly difficult with every caveat introduced by yet another licence.

When licensing writing, music, visual art, we don’t need to be lawyers or even all that familiar with the Creative Commons licences. Instead, we need a rough idea of the rights we want to grant and the protections we want to retain. The Creative Commons licence picker translates those desires into the most appropriate licence.

On the show, we suggested licencepicker.com as a way to help users know where they stand and guide projects in making an informed licence choice, without the need for a law degree. It’s great to see that members of the LugRadio community have picked the idea up.

To better cope with the licences that we have, licencepicker.com could offer a clickable list of common FOSS applications, each with a summary of the licence under which it is released.

The genie is already out of the bottle, though. We have more licences than most people could name and we’ll undoubtedly see more. Although many people may agree that licence proliferation is unhelpful, each new licence’s creators believe that their modifications are necessary.

Perhaps we can learn a lesson from environmentally led government policy: the polluter pays. We need to raise awareness, within the community, of the pain that licence proliferation causes. As attitudes change, so it will become more difficult for projects to create yet another licence. If the pain of introducing a new licence becomes more equitable with the damage it causes to the user’s understanding of their freedom, there’s a chance that projects and companies will settle for an existing licence.

Free software is hobbled if we don’t understand the rights it grants us. Mark Shuttleworth highlights licence proliferation as one of the big challenges we face in making “free software ubiquitous on the desktop”. I see three ways to attack the problem:

  • making licence proliferation uncomfortable
  • making it easy for users to understand their rights
  • helping new projects make informed licence choices.

These suggestions aren’t perfect, the list isn’t exhaustive and this all needs discussion. For example, some would argue that a licence picker would make it easier for projects to choose yet more obscure licences.