Dirk Riehle's Industry and Research Publications

Sorting out the Ethical Licensing Mess

Software developers who give the world, for free, usage rights to the code they write often use open source licenses to make this gift legally explicit. These free usage rights (and then some) are encoded in all valid open source licenses, next to the obligations one has to fulfill to receive the rights grant. Recently, the desire of some developers has surged to tie their gift to causes they care about. Some want to protect Chinese workers from abusive working hours, some want to stop companies from working with US immigrations, and some want to ensure that users vaccinate their children and themselves according to current medical best practice.

There is nothing wrong with tying a gift to such conditions, as long as these conditions are made transparent upfront. Then, a potential user can decide for themselves whether they are willing to comply with these conditions. What is wrong, however, is to call such software code open source code. The open source definition explicitly forbids introducing extracurricular conditions that target specific uses cases or person groups; ethical (or not) licenses violate the open source definition and should not be called open source.

I don’t really understand why calling their code “open source” is so important to those who want to tie their convictions to their code. I suspect that they want to ride the goodwill of the term open source, but that would be improper. I also suspect they want to avoid having people call their code proprietary, because sharing is on their mind. So maybe those interested in tying specific objectives to their code should come up with a third term next to open source and proprietary that better reflects their intentions? What about “community source” (certainly used a lot already, but still on target)?

From a practical point of view, should this surge and interest in ethical (and other) novel licenses continue, Github and other forges as well as the various initiatives like SPDX or ClearlyDefined need to deal with the ensuing increase in messiness. While viral spread may be in the interest of the licensors, we certainly don’t need to create more work for open source program offices and component approval processes.

Update 2020-02-29: If you liked this, or even more if you disliked it, you may find Kyle Mitchell’s analysis helpful.

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  1. Danese Cooper Avatar

    Various organizations have been trying to ride the PR wave of Open Source basically since the start. That is definitely why the ethical licensing folks want to hang off of open source, as Coraline Ada, a prominent spokesperson for the ESD (ethical source definition) said yesterday on Twitter that “it’s much easier to build off an existing movement”. As someone who has been working in Open Source since the beginning, I have consistently said ethical licensing could be an interesting movement, but they should build it on its own merits, and should not be so intent on making changes to Open Source that will likely undermine that very successful movement.

    It has been noted that when I founded InnerSource Commons, which admittedly is less about licensing than it is about methodology, I did it adjacent to Open Source, not within it.

    Thanks for noting the impropriety of infiltrating Open Source.

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