Understanding Wikimedia, or, the Heavy Metal Umlaut, one decade on

It has been nearly a full decade since Jon Udell’s classic screencast about Wikipedia’s article on the Heavy Metal Umlaut (current textJan. 2005). In this post, written for Paul Jones’ “living and working online” class, I’d like to use the last decade’s changes to the article to illustrate some points about the modern Wikipedia.1

Measuring change

At the end of 2004, the article had been edited 294 times. As we approach the end of 2014, it has now been edited 1,908 times by 1,174 editors.2

This graph shows the number of edits by year – the blue bar is the overall number of edits in each year; the dotted line is the overall length of the article (which has remained roughly constant since a large pruning of band examples in 2007).

 

The dropoff in edits is not unusual — it reflects both a mature article (there isn’t that much more you can write about metal umlauts!) and an overall slowing in edits in English Wikipedia (from a peak of about 300,000 edits/day in 2007 to about 150,000 edits/day now).3

The overall edit count — 2000 edits, 1000 editors — can be hard to get your head around, especially if you write for a living. Implications include:

  • Style is hard. Getting this many authors on the same page, stylistically, is extremely difficult, and it shows in inconsistencies small and large. If not for the deeply acculturated Encyclopedic Style we all have in our heads, I suspect it would be borderline impossible.
  • Most people are good, most of the time. Something like 3% of edits are “reverted”; i.e., about 97% of edits are positive steps forward in some way, shape, or form, even if imperfect. This is, I think, perhaps the single most amazing fact to come out of the Wikimedia experiment. (We reflect and protect this behavior in one of our guidelines, where we recommend that all editors Assume Good Faith.)

The name change, tools, and norms

In December 2008, the article lost the “heavy” from its name and became, simply, “metal umlaut” (explanation, aka “edit summary“, highlighted in yellow):

A few take aways:

  • Talk pages: The screencast explained one key tool for understanding a Wikipedia article – the page history. This edit summary makes reference to another key tool – the talk page. Every Wikipedia article has a talk page, where people can discuss the article, propose changes, etc.. In this case, this user discussed the change (in November) and then made the change in December. If you’re reporting on an article for some reason, make sure to dig into the talk page to fully understand what is going on.
  • Sources: The user justifies the name change by reference to sources. You’ll find little reference to them in 2005, but by 2008, finding an old source using a different term is now sufficient rationale to rename the entire page. Relatedly…
  • Footnotes: In 2008, there was talk of sources, but still no footnotes. (Compare the story about Motley Crue in Germany in 2005 and now.) The emphasis on foonotes (and the ubiquitous “citation needed”) was still a growing thing. In fact, when Jon did his screencast in January 2005, the standardized/much-parodied way of saying “citation needed” did not yet exist, and would not until June of that year! (It is now used in a quarter of a million English Wikipedia pages.) Of course, the requirement to add footnotes (and our baroque way of doing so) may also explain some of the decline in editing in the graphs above.

Images, risk aversion, and boldness

Another highly visible change is to the Motörhead art, which was removed in November 2011 and replaced with a Mötley Crüe image in September 2013. The addition and removal present quite a contrast. The removal is explained like this:

remove File:Motorhead.jpg; no fair use rationale provided on the image description page as described at WP:NFCC content criteria 10c

This is clear as mud, combining legal issues (“no fair use rationale”) with Wikipedian jargon (“WP:NFCC content criteria 10c”). To translate it: the editor felt that the “non-free content” rules (abbreviated WP:NFCC) prohibited copyright content unless there was a strong explanation of why the content might be permitted under fair use.

This is both great, and sad: as a lawyer, I’m very happy that the community is pre-emptively trying to Do The Right Thing and take down content that could cause problems in the future. At the same time, it is sad that the editors involved did not try to provide the missing fair use rationale themselves. Worse, a rationale was added to the image shortly thereafter, but the image was never added back to the article.

So where did the new image come from? Simply:

boldly adding image to lead

“boldly” here links to another core guideline: “be bold”. Because we can always undo mistakes, as the original screencast showed about spam, it is best, on balance, to move forward quickly. This is in stark contrast to traditional publishing, which has to live with printed mistakes for a long time and so places heavy emphasis on Getting It Right The First Time.

In brief

There are a few other changes worth pointing out, even in a necessarily brief summary like this one.

  • Wikipedia as a reference: At one point, in discussing whether or not to use the phrase “heavy metal umlaut” instead of “metal umlaut”, an editor makes the point that Google has many search results for “heavy metal umlaut”, and another editor points out that all of those search results refer to Wikipedia. In other words, unlike in 2005, Wikipedia is now so popular, and so widely referenced, that editors must be careful not to (indirectly) be citing Wikipedia itself as the source of a fact. This is a good problem to have—but a challenge for careful authors nevertheless.
  • Bots: Careful readers of the revision history will note edits by “ClueBot NG“. Vandalism of the sort noted by Jon Udell has not gone away, but it now is often removed even faster with the aid of software tools developed by volunteers. This is part of a general trend towards software-assisted editing of the encyclopedia.
  • Translations: The left hand side of the article shows that it is in something like 14 languages, including a few that use umlauts unironically. This is not useful for this article, but for more important topics, it is always interesting to compare the perspective of authors in different languages.

Other thoughts?

I look forward to discussing all of these with the class, and to any suggestions from more experienced Wikipedians for other lessons from this article that could be showcased, either in the class or (if I ever get to it) in a one-decade anniversary screencast. :)

  1. I still haven’t found a decent screencasting tool that I like, so I won’t do proper homage to the original—sorry Jon! []
  2. Numbers courtesy X’s edit counter. []
  3. It is important, when looking at Wikipedia statistics, to distinguish between stats about Wikipedia in English, and Wikipedia globally — numbers and trends will differ vastly between the two. []

My Wikimania 2014 talks

Primarily what I did during Wikimania was chew on pens.

Discussing Fluid Lobbying at Wikimania 2014, by Sebastiaan ter Burg, under CC BY 2.0

However, I also gave some talks.

The first one was on Creative Commons 4.0, with Kat Walsh. While targeted at Wikimedians, this may be of interest to others who want to learn about CC 4.0 as well.

Second one was on Open Source Hygiene, with Stephen LaPorte. This one is again Wikimedia-specific (and I’m afraid less useful without the speaker notes) but may be of interest to open source developers more generally.

The final one was on sharing; video is below (and I’ll share the slides once I figure out how best to embed the notes, which are pretty key to understanding the slides):

Designers and Creative Commons: Learning Through Wikipedia Redesigns

tl;dr: Wikipedia redesigns mostly ignore attribution of Wikipedia authors, and none approach the problem creatively. This probably says as much or more about Creative Commons as it does about the designers.

disclaimer-y thing: so far, this is for fun, not work; haven’t discussed it at the office and have no particular plans to. Yes, I have a weird idea of fun.

A mild refresh from interfacesketch.com.

It is no longer surprising when a new day brings a new redesign of Wikipedia. After seeing one this weekend with no licensing information, I started going back through seventeen of them (most of the ones listed on-wiki) to see how (if at all) they dealt with licensing, attribution, and history. Here’s a summary of what I found.

Completely missing

Perhaps not surprisingly, many designers completely remove attribution (i.e., history) and licensing information in their designs. Seven of the seventeen redesigns I surveyed were in this camp. Some of them were in response to a particular, non-licensing-related challenge, so it may not be fair to lump them into this camp, but good designers still deal with real design constraints, and licensing is one of them.

History survives – sometimes

The history link is important, because it is how we honor the people who wrote the article, and comply with our attribution obligations. Five of the seventeen redesigns lacked any licensing information, but at least kept a history link.

Several of this group included some legal information, such as links to the privacy policy, or in one case, to the Wikimedia Foundation trademark page. This suggests that our current licensing information may be presented in a worse way than some of our other legal information, since it seems to be getting cut out even by designers who are tolerant of some of our other legalese?

Same old, same old

Four of the seventeen designs keep the same old legalese, though one fails to comply by making it impossible to get to the attribution (history) page. Nothing wrong with keeping the existing language, but it could reflect a sad conclusion that licensing information isn’t worth the attention of designers; or (more generously) that they don’t understand the meaning/utility of the language, so it just gets cargo-culted around. (Credit to Hamza Erdoglu , who was the only mockup designer who specifically went out of his way to show the page footer in one of his mockups.)

A winner, sort of!

Of the seventeen sites I looked at, exactly one did something different: Wikiwand. It is pretty minimal, but it is something. The one thing: as part of the redesign, it adds a big header/splash image to the page, and then adds a new credit specifically for the author of the header/splash image down at the bottom of the page with the standard licensing information. Arguably it isn’t that creative, just complying with their obligations from adding a new image, but it’s at least a sign that not everyone is asleep at the wheel.

Observations

This is surely not a large or representative sample, so all my observations from this exercise should be taken with a grain of salt. (They’re also speculative since I haven’t talked to the designers.) That said, some thoughts besides the ones above:

  • Virtually all of the designers who wrote about why they did the redesign mentioned our public-edit-nature as one of their motivators. Given that, I expected history to be more frequently/consistently addressed. Not clear whether this should be chalked up to designers not caring about attribution, or the attribution role of history being very unclear to anyone who isn’t an expect. I suspect the latter.
  • It was evident that some of these designers had spent a great deal of time thinking about the site, and yet were unaware of licensing/attribution. This suggests that people who spend less time with the site (i.e., 99.9% of readers) are going to be even more ignorant.
  • None of the designers felt attribution and licensing was even important enough to experiment on or mention in their writeups. As I said above, this is understandable but sort of sad, and I wonder how to change it.

Postscript, added next morning:

I think it’s important to stress that I didn’t link to the individual sites here, because I don’t want to call out particular designers or focus on their failures/oversights. The important (and as I said, sad) thing to me is that designers are, historically, a culture concerned with licensing and attribution. If we can’t interest them in applying their design talents to our problem, in the context of the world’s most famously collaborative project, we (lawyers and other Commoners) need to look hard at what we’re doing, and how we can educate and engage designers to be on our side.

I should also add that the WMF design team has been a real pleasure to work with on this problem, and I look forward to doing more of it. Some stuff still hasn’t made it off the drawing board, but they’re engaged and interested in this challenge. Here is one example.

Democracy and Software Freedom

As part of a broader discussion of democracy as the basis for a just socio-economic system, Séverine Deneulin summarizes Robert Dahl’s Democracy, which says democracy requires five qualities:

First, democracy requires effective participation. Before a policy is adopted, all members must have equal and effective opportunities for making their views known to others as to what the policy should be.

Second, it is based on voting equality. When the moment arrives for the final policy decision to be made, every member should have an equal and effective opportunity to vote, and all votes should be counted as equal.

Third, it rests on ‘enlightened understanding’. Within reasonable limits, each member should have equal and effective opportunities for learning about alternative policies and their likely consequences.

Fourth, each member should have control of the agenda, that is, members should have the exclusive opportunity to decide upon the agenda and change it.

Fifth, democratic decision-making should include all adults. All (or at least most) adult permanent residents should have the full rights of citizens that are implied by the first four criteria.

From An Introduction to the Human Development and Capability Approach“, Ch. 8 – “Democracy and Political Participation”.

Poll worker explains voting process in southern Sudan referendum” by USAID Africa Bureau via Wikimedia Commons.

It is striking that, despite talking a lot about freedom, and often being interested in the question of who controls power, these five criteria might as well be (Athenian) Greek to most free software communities and participants- the question of liberty begins and ends with source code, and has nothing to say about organizational structure and decision-making – critical questions serious philosophers always address.

Our licensing, of course, means that in theory points #4 and #5 are satisfied, but saying “you can submit a patch” is, for most people, roughly as satisfying as saying “you could buy a TV ad” to an American voter concerned about the impact of wealth on our elections. Yes, we all have the theoretical option to buy a TV ad/edit our code, but for most voters/users of software that option will always remain theoretical. We’re probably even further from satisfying #1, #2, and #3 in most projects, though one could see the Ada Initiative and GNOME OPW as attempts to deal with some aspects of #1, #3, and #4

This is not to say that voting is the right way to make decisions about software development, but simply to ask: if we don’t have these checks in place, what are we doing instead? And are those alternatives good enough for us to have certainty that we’re actually enhancing freedom?

Some quick notes on the occasion of my fourth OSI board face-to-face

The past two days were my fourth OSI face-to-face board meeting, this time about a block from my office in San Francisco.

Image by opensource.com under a CC BY-SA license.

 

Some brief thoughts:

  • I’m excited about the hire of our new General Manager (and first paid employee), Patrick Masson. One of the hardest things for an all-volunteer organization is execution: finishing the last 10% of tasks; reliably repeating necessary things; generally taking ideas from conception to reality. I expect in the short term that hiring Patrick will really help with those first two, and in the longer term, as he gets his feet under him, he’ll be a great help for the last one. Potentially a very exciting time for OSI.
  • Relatedly, we have a lot of proposals in the air, particularly with regards to membership and education/outreach. I hope in the next six months we’ll see a lot of concrete results from them.
  • This meeting represented a bit of  a changing of the guard — it was the first board meeting for Richard Fontana and the last for a long-time member of our community who will be term-limited out at the end of this term. I always enjoy working with Richard, and fresh blood is great, but it was a good reminder that time continues to pass and that I should focus on, you know, getting things done :)
  • This is a small thing, but the OSI website now has a brief summary of open source on the front page. We also recently helped a high-profile website update and correct their definition of open source – the kind of small thing that isn’t very visible but will be influential in the long run, as we educate the next wave of open source devs. Hoorah for small victories!
  • You can help (I): We continue to look for help to update the OSI website, both by improving our license information and by updating or writing other pages on the website.
  • You can help (II): Richard’s addition to the board is significant, because just like I was part of the first class of board members nominated by affiliates, he is the first board member elected by the membership. That is an important milestone for us, as we move towards being more accountable to, and governed by, the open source community. You can help by joining as an individual member, or by encouraging your organizations to join as an affiliate.
  • I continue to be grateful to the Wikimedia Foundation (and my boss!) in supporting me in doing this. There is never a good time to take two days mostly off.
  • The relationship between OSI and other groups promoting open definitions was a continued source of discussion at the meeting, and I imagine will continue to be a repeating theme. I hope I can continue to act as a bridge with organizations in open data and open culture, and I expect Patrick will be great in helping us bridge to open education.

Reviewing the Manual of Style for Contract Drafting by Editing Twitter’s Patent Agreement

strike {color:red;}
u {color:blue;}

Synopsis for lawyers

You should really buy the Manual of Style for Contract Drafting – it’ll make you a better drafter and editor. This post applies the book’s rules and guidelines to a publicly-available legal agreement (Twitter’s Innovator’s Patent Agreement) to explain what the book is and why it is valuable.

tl;dr, for programmers

Contract writers have no equivalent of RFC 2119, mostly because contract drafting is hard. MSCD is a good try – defining terms and demanding consistency, just like the compiler lawyers lack. This post is a rewrite and fleshing out of the github edit history.

    <dl id="attachment_2631" class="wp-caption aligncenter" style="max-width:508px">
        <dt><a href="http://i0.wp.com/commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sales_contract_Shuruppak_Louvre_AO3760.jpg?ssl=1"><img src="http://i2.wp.com/tieguy.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Sales_contract_Shuruppak_Louvre.jpg?resize=508%2C480" alt="A contract for the selling of a field and a house." class="size-full wp-image-2631" /></a></dt>
        <dd>A contract for the selling of a field and a house, from <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shuruppak">the Sumerian city of Shurrupak</a>, now in the Louvre.</dd>
    </dl><br />

Continue reading “Reviewing the Manual of Style for Contract Drafting by Editing Twitter’s Patent Agreement”

Thoughts on the CC Summit

I was lucky enough to attend the Creative Commons Global Summit in Buenos Aires last week, including the pre-conference session on copyright reform.

Oliver’s Tattoo (cropped), by Oliver Keyes, used under CC BY-SA

Like Wikimania, there is simply too much here to summarize in coherent chunks, so here are my motes and thoughts during my return flight:

  • Maira Sutton of EFF summed up my strongest feeling about the event (and Wikimania, and many others) quite perfectly: “Getting a chance to finally meet those people you’ve admired from the Internet… Yea I hope that never gets old.” I hope I always remember that we are parts of a movement that draws much of its strength from being human – from being, simply, good to each other, and enjoying that. I realize sometimes being a lawyer gets in the way of that, but hopefully not too often ;)
  • At the copyright reform mini-conference, it was super-interesting to see the mix of countries playing offense and defense on copyright reform. Reform efforts discussed appeared to be patchwork; i.e., folks asking for one thing in one country, another in others, varying a great deal based on local circumstances. (The one “global” proposed solution was from American University/InfoJustice, who have worked with a team of lawyers from around the world to create a sort of global fair use/fair dealing exception called flexible use. An interesting idea.) Judging from my conversations at Wikimania and with Wikipedians at CC Summit, this is an area of great interest to Wikipedians, and possibly one where we could have a great impact as an example of the benefits of peer production.
  • Conversation around the revised CC 4.0 license drafts was mostly quite positive. The primary expressed concerns were about fragmentation and cross-jurisdictional compatibility. I understand these concerns better now, having engaged in several good discussions about them with folks at the conference. That said, I came away only confirmed on my core position on CC’s license drafting: when in doubt, CC should always err on the side of creating a global license and enabling low-complexity sharing.
  • This is not to say CC should rush things for 4.0, or be legally imprecise – just that they must be careful not to accidentally overlook the negative costs or overlawyering. Unfortunately, creating something knowingly imperfect is a profoundly difficult position for a lawyer to be in; something we’re trained to avoid at almost all costs. It is easiest to be in this position when there is an active negotiator on the other side, since they can actively persuade you about the compromise – instead of arguing against yourself. Public license drafting is perhaps unusually susceptible to causing this problem in lawyers; I do not envy the 4.0 drafters their difficult task.
  • There was a fair bit of (correct) complaining about the definition about Effective Technological Measures in the license – the most lawyerly piece of writing in 3.0 and the current drafts. Unfortunately, this is inevitable – to create a new, independent definition, instead of referring to the statute, is to risk protecting too much or too little, neither of which would be the correct outcome for CC. It would also make the license much longer than it currently is. I believe that the right solution is to drop the definition, and instead have a parallel distribution clause, where the important definition is easy: the recipient must be able to obtain at least one copy in which they are not prohibited from exercising the rights already defined. ETM then becomes much less important to define precisely.
  • Interesting to see that the distribution of licenses is mostly getting more free over time. After seeing the focuses of the various Creative Commons affiliates, I think this is probably not coincidence – they all seem quite dedicated to educating governments, OERs, and others about transaction costs associated with less free licenses, and many report good results.
  • That said, licensing data, even under free licenses, is going to be tricky – the trend there appears to be (at least) attribution, not disclaimer of rights. Attribution will be complicated for database integration; both from an engineering and a legal perspective.
  • Combined with the push towards government/institutional publication of data, there were a lot of talks and discussions about what to do with information that are difficult or inappropriate to edit, like scientific articles or historical documents. Lots of people think there is a lot of value to be added by tools that allow collaborative annotation and discussion, even on documents that can’t/shouldn’t be collaboratively edited. I think this could be a Wiki strength, if we built (or borrowed) the right tools, and I really hope we start on that soon.
  • Great energy in general from the affiliates around two areas: copyright reform, and encouragement of government and institutions to use CC licenses. I think these issues, and not the licenses themselves, will really be what drives the affiliates in the next 3-5 years. Remains to be seen where exactly CC HQ will fit into these issues – they are building a great team around OER, and announced support for copyright reform, but these are hard issues to lead from the center on, because they often need such specific, local knowledge.
  • Met lots of great people; too many to list here, but particularly great conversations with Prodi, Rafael, and folks from PLOS (who I think Wiki should partner with more). And of course catching up with a lot of old friends as well. In particular, perhaps my conversation with Kragen will spur me to finish my long-incomplete essay on Sen and Stallman.
  • I also had a particularly great conversation with my oldest friend, Dan, about what a modern-day attribution looks like. Now that we’re no longer limited to static textual lists of authors, as we have done since the dawn of the book, what can we do? How do we scale to mega-collaborative documents (like the Harry Potter page) that have hundreds or thousands of authors? How do we make it more two-way, so that there is not just formal attribution but genuine appreciation flowing both ways (without, of course, creating new frictions)? The “thanks” feature we’ve added to Wikipedia seems one small way to do this; Dan spoke also of how retweets simultaneously attribute and thank. But both of those are in walled silos- how can we take them outside of that?
  • Saw a great talk on “Copyright Exceptions in the Arab World” pan-Arab survey; really drove home how fragmented copyright statutes can be globally. (Translation, in particular, seemed an important and powerful exception, though my favorite exception was for military bands.) Of course, the practical impact of this is nearly nil – many of the organizations that are in charge of administering these literally don’t know they exist, and of course most of the people using the copyrights in the culture not only don’t know, they don’t care.
  • Beatriz Busaniche gave a nice talk; perhaps the most important single thing to me: a reminder that we should remember that even today most cultural communication takes place outside of (intentional) copyright.
  • Lessig is still Lessig; a powerful, clear, lucid speaker. We need more like him. In that vein, and after a late-night discussion about this exact topic, I remind speakers that before their next conference they should read Presentation Zen and Slideology.
  • Database rights session was interesting and informative, but perhaps did not ultimately move the ball forward very much. I fear that the situation is too complex, and the underlying legal concepts still too immature, for the big “add database to share-alike” step that CC is now committed to taking with 4.0. My initial impression (still subject to more research) is that Wikipedia’s factual and jurisdictional situation will avoid problems for us, but it may be worse for others.
  • After seeing all the energy from affiliates, as well as seeing it in Wikimedia’s community, I’m really curious about how innovation tends to happen in global NGOs like Red Cross or Greenpeace. Do national-level organizations discover issues and bring them to the center? Or is it primarily the center spotting issues (and solutions) and spurring the affiliates onward? Some mix? Obviously early CC was the former (Lessig personifies leadership from a center outwards) but the current CC seems to lean towards the latter. (This isn’t necessarily a bad place to be – it can simply reflect, as I think it does here, that the local affiliates are more optimistic and creative because they are closer to conditions on the ground.)
  • Watched two Baz Luhrmann films on my flight back, a fun reminder of the power of remix. I know most of my film friends think he’s awful, and admittedly for the first time I realized that Clair Danes is … not very good … in Romeo and Juliet. But in Luhrmann there is a zest, a gleeful chopping, mixing, and recreating of our culture. And I love that; I hope CC can help enable that for the next generation of Luhrmanns.

Forking and Standards: Why The Right to Fork Can Be Pro-Social

[I originally sent a version of this to the W3C’s Patents and Standards Interest Group, where a fellow member asked me to post it more publicly. Since then, others have also blogged in related veins.]

Blue Plastic Fork, by David Benbennick, used under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

It is often said that open source and open standards are different, because in open source, a diversity of forks is accepted/encouraged, while “forked” standards are confusing/inefficient since they don’t provide “stable reference points” for the people who have to implement the spec.

Here is the nutshell version of a critical way in which open source and open standards are in fact similar, and why licensing that allows forking therefore matters.

Open source and open standards are similar because both are generally created by communities of collaborators who must trust each other across organizational boundaries. This is relevant to the right to fork, because the “right to fork” is an important mechanism to help those communities trust each other. This is surprising – the right to fork is often viewed as an anti-social right, which allows someone to stomp their feet and walk away. However, it is also pro-social: because it makes it impossible for any one person or organization to become a single point of failure. This is particularly important where the community is in large part a volunteer one, and where a single point of failure is widely perceived to have actually failed in the past.

Not coincidentally, “largely volunteer” and “failed single point of failure” describes the HTML working group (HTML WG) pretty closely. W3C was a single point of failure for HTML, and most HTML WG participants believe W3C’s failures stalled the development of HTML from 1999 to 2006. For some of the history, see David Baron’s recent post; for a more detailed
history by the author of HTML5, you can look in the spec itself.

Because of this history, the HTML WG participants voted for permissive licenses for their specification. They voted for permissive licenses, even though many of them have the most to gain from “stable reference points”, since they are often the ones who (when not writing the standards) are the one paid to implement the standards!

An alternate way to think about this is to think of the forkable license as a commitment mechanism for W3C: by committing to open licensing for the specification, W3C is saying to the HTML WG community “we will be good stewards – because we know otherwise you’ll leave”. (Alternate commitment mechanisms are of course a possibility, and I believe some have been discussed – but they’d need careful institutional design, and would all result in some variety of instabililty.)

So, yes: standards should be stable. But the options for HTML may not be “stable specification” or “unstable specification”. The options, based on the community’s vote and discussions, may well be “unstable specification” or “no (W3C) specification at all”, because many of the key engineers involved don’t appear to trust W3C much further than they can throw it. The forkable license is a popular potential mechanism to reduce that trust gap and allow everyone to move forward, knowing that their investments are not squandered should the W3C screw up again in the future.

One year on OSI’s board (aka one year in OSI’s licensing)

Since it has been roughly one year since Mozilla nominated me to sit on the OSI board, I thought I’d recap what I’ve done over the course of the year. It hasn’t been a perfect year by any stretch, but I’m pretty happy with what we’ve done and I think we’re pointed in the right direction. Because my primary public responsibility on the board has been chairing the license committee, this can also sort of double as a review of the last year in license-discuss/license-review (though there is lots of stuff done by other members of the community that doesn’t show up here yet).

Outside of licensing, my work has consisted mostly of cheerleading the hard work of others on the board (like Deb’s hard work on our upcoming DC meeting and the work of many people on our membership initiative) – I haven’t listed each instance of that here.

Wikimedia Deutschland offices in Berlin, during the tour at the Chapters Meeting 2011“, by Mike Peel, under CC-BY-SA 2.5. (Mind you, CC is not actually OSI-certified ;)

Some things that got done:

  • Drafted and published a beta Code of Conduct for license-discuss/license-review. This was drafted with the intent that it will eventually be a CoC for all of OSI, but we’re still formally beta-testing it in the license committee community.
  • Revised the opensource.org/licenses landing page to make it more useful to visitors who are not familiar with open source. Also poked and prodded others to do various improvements to the FAQ, which now has categories and a few improved questions.
  • Revised OSI’s history page. The main changes were to update it to reflect the past  5-6 years, but also to make it more readable and more positive.
  • Oversaw a number of license submissions. I can’t take much credit for these- the community does most of the heavy lifting. But the group submitted in the past year include AROS, MOSL, “No Nonsense“, and CeCILL. The new EUPL is in the pipeline as well.
  • Engaged Greenberg Traurig as outside counsel to OSI, and organized and hosted a board face-to-face meeting at Greenberg’s San Francisco office space.
  • Helped keep lines of communication open (and hopefully improving!) with SPDX and OKFN.

Some projects are important, but incomplete:

Some projects never really got off  the ground:

  • I wanted to get GNOME to join OSI as an affiliate. This, very indirectly, spurred the history page revision mentioned above, but otherwise never really got anywhere.
  • I wanted to have OSI reach out to the authors of the CPOL and push them to improve it or adopt an existing license. That never happened.
  • I wanted to figure out how to encourage github to require a license for new projects, but got no traction.

I hope that this sounds like a pretty good year- it isn’t perfect but it felt like a good start to me, giving us some things we can build on for future years.

That said, it shouldn’t be up to just me – if you think this kind of thing sounds useful  for the broader open source community, you can help :)

  • Join license-discuss, or, if you’re more sensitive to mail traffic, but still want to help with the committee’s most important work, join license-review, which focuses on approving/rejecting proposed new licenses.
  • Become a member! Easier than joining license-discuss  ;) and provides both fiscal and moral support to the organization.

Pushing back against licensing and the permission culture

tl;dr: the open license ecosystem assumes that sharing can’t (or even shouldn’t) happen without explicit permission in the form of licenses. What if “post open source” is an implicit critique of that assumption – saying, in essence, “I reject the permission culture”? If so, license authors might want to consider creating options that enable people to express that opinion.

A few months back, James Governor said:

While the actual extent of “POSS” is debatable, there is definitely an increase in the amount of unlicensed code out there. This post suggests 20+% of the most-watched github projects are unlicensed. The pushback against licensing isn’t specific to software, either – at least some sharing musicians are deliberately spurning Creative Commons (via Lucas) and Nina Paley has been obliquely making the same point about the licensing of her art as well.

A few months back, I pointed out that the lack of licensing led to confusion and so was great for lawyers. That post was accurate, but slightly glib. Here, I want to grapple more seriously with the rejection of licensing, and provoke the licensing community to think about what that means.

A dab of history and context

In the US, prior to the 1976 Copyright Act, you had to take affirmative steps to get a protectable copyright. In other words, you could publish something and expect others to be able to legally reuse it, without slapping a license on it first.

Since the 1976 Act, you get copyright simply by creating the work in question. That means every blog post and every github commit is copyrighted. This restrictive default, combined with the weakness of fair use, leads to the “permission culture” – the pernicious assumption that you must always ask permission before doing anything with anyone’s work, because nothing is ever simply shared or legally usable. (This assumption is incorrect, but the cost of acting that way can be high if you make a mistake.)

Permission, by Nina Paley.

“POSS” might be more than just bad hygiene

It is easy to assume that the pushback against licenses (“post-open source”) is because licensing is confusing/time-consuming and people are lazy/busy. While I’m sure these are the primary reasons, I think that, for some people, the pushback against licenses often reflects a belief that “no copyright should mean no permission needed”. In other words, those people choose not to use a license because, on some level, they reject the permission culture and want to go back to the pre-1976 defaults. In this case, publishing without a license is in some way a political statement  – “not every use should need permission”.1

Fixing(?) the politics of our licenses

If some “no license” sharing is a quiet rejection of the permission culture, the lawyer’s solution (make everyone use a license, for their own good!) starts to look bad. This is because once an author has used a standard license, their immediate interests are protected – but the political content of not choosing a license is lost. Or to put it another way: if license authors get their wish, and everyone uses a license for all content, then, to the casual observer, it looks like everyone accepts the permission culture. This could make it harder to change that culture – to change the defaults – in the long run.

So how might we preserve the content of the political speech against the permission culture, while also allowing for use in that same, actually-existing permission culture? Or to put it more concisely:

What would a “license” that actively rejects the permission culture look like?

A couple of off-the-wall options:

  • Permissive+political preamble license: The WTFPL license (“Do WTF you want“) has been floating around for ages, and using it makes the point that (1) you want people to use your code and (2) you’re irritated that they even have to ask. Adding a brief “I hate that I have to do this” preamble to a permissive license like CC-0 might serve a similar purpose, while providing more legal certainty than WTFPL. (And of course such a preamble could also be used with a strong copyleft, like copyleft-next.)
  • Fair Use supplement: Fair use is the traditional safety valve for copyright, but it is hard to know if a particular use is “fair.” So a “license” could be written that, instead of formally licensing under specific terms, instead aims to provide more certainty about fair use. Some ways this could be done would include broadly defining the fair use categories, explicitly accepting transformative use as a factor in the fair use analysis, or asking courts to interpret ambiguity in favor of the recipient instead of the author. It is also possible to imagine this as a supplement to the existing fair use clauses in modern licenses (CC-BY 3.0 Sec. 2, GPL v3 Sec. 2, MPL 2 Sec 2.6), laying out a strong vision of fair use to help guide and protect anyone relying on those clauses.
  • “What People Actually Think Copyright Is” license: most Americans2 think that personal use of copyrighted materials is legal under modern copyright law. So a license that focused on personal use might work better than the more nebulous “non-commercial”. As a bonus, since commercial interests will clearly be unable to use the content, getting it “right for lawyers” may be less of a concern.

Careful readers will note that the last two options are unlikely to be OSI-open or FSF-free. For the purposes of this exercise, that’s OK- OSI, FSF, and CC’s iron-clad assumption that licensing is good is what I’d like to provoke people to think about here.3

Conclusion, and provocation

I don’t offer these license ideas as a comprehensive survey of what an anti-permission-culture license might look like, or even a good survey. Instead, take them as a provocation: are we – particularly authors and evaluators of open licenses – part of the problem of the permission culture? Are we actually responding to the people who use our licenses, if one of their desires is to push back against the need to license? Can we be more creative about expressing distaste for the permission culture, without gumming up the works of sharing too much? I think that, if we think critically, we can, and perhaps we should.

  1. Another motive, that I won’t go into here but which also deserves serious discussion for license authors, is simply that the values encapsulated in our licenses are taken for granted by younger developers who have always had a plentiful, healthy free-as-in-beer code commons. Both the permissive and copyleft communities would do well to argue the case for their licenses (not just their overall philosophies) better than they currently do. []
  2. per Jessica Littman, Digital Copyright, p. 117 []
  3. If it wasn’t already obvious, this post is obviously not made with my OSI hat on – OSI continues to firmly endorse the Open Source Definition. []