Babel of Licenses

Tuesday, January 1, 1980

We in the open source community struggle against closed-source hegemonies and misconceptions from corporate interests, and we aspire for recognition by the very same corporations. We struggle for acceptance by the general public even as we struggle to make our products easier for the public to consume. But most importantly, we struggle to protect our own interests, and in that, perhaps we struggle against ourselves. There is a contradictory tension between our desire to create and spread good and our need to protect our original intent. This tension results in a plethora of licenses. But How Many Licenses is Too Many? Last I checked, there were more than 90 different licenses littering the open source landscape. Creative Commons itself offers more than half a dozen variations, and, if that is not enough, also "face-plates" the already existing GNU GPL and LGPL licenses. For me as a creator, this is like pulling dark socks out of a closed box blind-folded only the wear them in the dark where most won't care to look.

If choosing a license is tough for the creator, imagine what it is like for the end-user. The end-user is either not going to give a hoot about the license, not even caring to read what is essentially boring, convoluted, and non-sensical text. Or, if the user is going to care to read, she is going to be thoroughly confused about the applicability of the license to her situation, perhaps even choosing to not use the product at all. Just as all knowledge is derivative, the licenses themselves are accretive, building layers upon layers of what we can and cannot do with these ever-composite products.

IvanIllich has cried "fire" in more than one "crowded theater" : education (De-schooling Society, 1971), energy (Energy and Equity, 1974), medicine (Medical Nemesis, 1975*), and gender roles (Sad Loss of Gender, 1990*) have all been subjected to Illich's critical analysis at times when they seemed most unquestionable and ascendent. But, more pertinent to us, in a speech entitled Silence Is A Commons at the "Asahi Symposium Science and Man: The computer-managed Society," in Tokyo on March 21, 1982, Illich reflected on how in his village on the Dalmatian Island of Brac, the "commons of silence" that had existed for generations were destroyed by the advent of the loudspeaker. Now, in order for one's voice to be heard, one had to have a loudspeaker, be louder than others. Suddenly, the silence that made conversation possible among equals was gone, replaced by an ever louder cacophony of everyone striving to be heard above each other. Illich was commenting on how computers were changing the very way we communicate, which, for 25 years ago was eerily prescient. And now, it seems that the babel of licenses is poised to make the dissemination and adoption of "open source anything" difficult.

The open source community has already broken preconceptions. In a world that only understands value in holding back, open source has shown that it is possible to increase value by giving it away. But the last vestige of the human desire to protect our rights still remains. Some of us want to insure that our original interests are perpetuated, while others want a continuing share of credit. Whatever be our motivation, it is imperative upon us to think differently about licensing, and restore silence to the commons so we may all be able to share and benefit equally.