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!

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