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. []

A revised OSI “Open Source Licenses” page

When someone new to open source does a web search for “open source licenses”, the first page that comes up1 is opensource.org/licenses – making it one of the most important resources for newcomers to open source.2

Despite that, until today, all that a newbie would get when going to that page was two links: one to the list of approved licenses alphabetically, and another by category. This is obviously not ideal – it provides the newcomer with information useful only to an expert, so they lose; and OSI misses an opportunity to educate and inform, so we lose.

Because of this, in the middle of last year I sent an email to license-discuss proposing a revision to the page, and followed up several times in the second half of the year. Yesterday, I took the revision live.

Don’t do a nano without them by mpclemens, used under CC-BY 2.0.

Here is what the revision does, in a nutshell:

  • gives context: what is an open source license? what does OSI-approved mean? These give a newcomer to the list a fighting chance of figuring out what the lists mean.
  • provides a less-overwhelming list of licenses: using the “popular, widely used, or have strong communities” list created by the 2006 Proliferation Report, it gives people pointers to several useful licenses immediately, while still providing access to the full lists.
  • works with OSI’s other resources: The new page links to OSI’s excellent FAQ and the annotated Open Source Definition, among other things. Again, these provide context, and help the page serve as a gateway for others.
  • is progress: OSI can be, and often should be, a very change-averse organization. But it is nice to score a small win here and there- I hope this will be the first of many while I chair the license committee.

And what it doesn’t do:

  • change the world: I’m blogging about this because it’s significant. But I also want to be clear that it is only a small win, and hopefully one that in 2-3 years OSI will look back on and have a good chuckle about.
  • change, update or revise the license categories: The original license proliferation committee license categories, from 2006, have been useful to many people, and were instrumental in slowing the pace of license proliferation. So they make sense to use as the (relatively neutral) basis for the list that is now prominent on /licenses/. But they’re showing their age- notably by including CDDL in “popular/widely used” but in other ways as well (primarily, by not categorizing a variety of new licenses). OSI’s licensing committee (aka the license-discuss list, with input from others) will be gradually investigating how to address this over the course of the next year or so. This process has already started, somewhat, with my calls for quantitative criteria for license analysis. I intend to continue to push the list (including hopefully new members!) to think through the issue and its implications.

If you’re interested in helping out with future changes, please join the list.

  1. other than an ad for opensource.com, interestingly []
  2. Interesting research question/bleg: for a reasonably comprehensive set of important “open source + foo” terms, like collaboration, licensing, etc., where do search results point at? How many go to opensource.org? .com? other sites? Is there a tool that will do this sort of analysis automatically? []

Licensing confusion is great! (for lawyers)

I want to heartily unendorse Simon Phipps’ Infoworld article about Github and licensing. Simon’s article makes it sound like no one benefits from sloppy licensing practices, and that is simply not true. Specifically, lawyers benefit! I regularly get calls from clients saying “I have no idea if I’m allowed to use <project X>, because it is on github but doesn’t have a license.” When that happens, instead of money going to developers where it could actually build something productive, instead, I get to spend my time and the client’s money fixing a problem that the original author could have easily avoided by slapping an Apache license on the thing in the first place – or that github could have avoided by adding default terms.

So, support your local open source lawyer today – publish source code without a license!1

  1. Tongue firmly in cheek, in case that isn’t obvious. Seriously, lawyers are the only ones who benefit from this situation, except for that handful of seconds it took you to “git add LICENSE”. Always license your code, kids! []

Speaking at Practicing Law Institute’s Open Source/Free Software 2013

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be speaking at the Practicing Law Institute’s “Open Source and Free Software 2013: Benefits, Risks and Challenges” continuing education for lawyers in San Francisco in December. I did this last year (on a panel with the excellent Mark Radcliffe) and it was a lot of fun.

Topics will include:

  •  Setting the Stage: An Introduction to “FOSS” and Copyright Concepts
  •  Open Source Software and its Licenses
  • License Enforcement and Avoiding Litigation
  • Effective Business Practices in the Open Source Cloud
  • Ethics: Conflict and Cooperation in Open Source Projects
  • Royalty-Free Patents and Open Standards in Open Source Software
  • Hot Topics: Critical Issues and Important Cases in FOSS

I’ll be on a panel on the last topic (“Hot Topics”) with Larry Rosen and Karen Copenhaver. The rest of the speaker lineup is excellent as well:

  • Daniel Berlin – Google
  • Adam Cohn – Cisco
  • Eileen Evans – HP
  • Harrison “Buzz” Frahn – Simpson Thatcher
  • Gabe Holloway – Leonard, Street and Deinard
  • Mario Madden – Microsoft
  • Gervase Markham – Mozilla
  • Gwyn Murray – Matau Legal Group
  • Marc Visnick – Johnson-Laird

I’m afraid it isn’t cheap, but it’s a full day of CLE, and (based on my experience last year) a good way for lawyers not familiar with open source to get up to speed quickly. (It’s also going to be streamed for those who aren’t feeling like pressing the flesh.)

List of Open _______

Because I think it might be alternately amusing and useful, I’ve decided to compile a list of Open things. Additions welcome in comments; or if you can point me to someone else who has already done this, I’d appreciate that too. I think the list is more interesting if it stays focused on organizations claiming to represent Open Something, rather than just individuals saying that X is open, but pointers in that direction welcome too (and maybe will also show up some interesting patterns). Bonus points if they have a standard for defining what “open” means in their context, or if they are just hilariously awful.

“Open”, by Monica’s Dad, used under CC-BY 2.0.

The list:

I know there are more, but this is all I can think of in a pinch this morning. Help?

A Quick Note on Conspicuous Text, also known as ALL CAPS

[Quick followup: (1) Matthew Butterick, of Typography for Lawyers fame, has added a thoughtful comment that anyone reading the post should read; and (2) to be clear, nothing here is my original work or thought – it’s all a convenient, collect-in-one-place paraphrase of ideas from the excellent Manual of Style for Contract Drafting and Typography for Lawyers, both of which should be on the desk of every corporate lawyer.]

Anil Dash asked about ALL CAPS Friday, and then someone in my (very fun) letterpress class at the San Francisco Center for the Book asked me a related question. So here is a quick post on the lovely subject of ALL CAPS.

A copy of the MPL with yellow text instead of ALL CAPS.

The basic question: Why do lawyers use so much ALL CAPS and what can a normal human being do about it?

Some laws require that text in a form or contract be “conspicuous” – i.e., that they be made harder to miss. The most common example of this, in the US, are requirements that disclaimers of warranty1 be conspicuous, so that consumers don’t miss them. You’ve all seen these blocks, and most of you have skipped over them. In the US, the law that requires conspicuous text for warranty disclaimers is typically a descendant of the Uniform Commercial Code (“UCC”) § 2-316.2 Practically speaking, this kind of requirement makes sense – it highlights areas that legislators have decided are particularly important and so can’t be hidden in the nooks and crannies of a document.

Unfortunately, historically, the only easy way for lawyers to make text “conspicuous” on a typewriter was ALL CAPS. Unfortunately, at some point along the way, many lawyers confused the technology (typewriters) for what was actually legally required. And so this is where we stand now – many lawyers will insist that ALL CAPS are required, when they really aren’t.

So if not ALL CAPS, what actuallyisrequired? This varies from rule to rule, unfortunately. But in the UCC, conspicuous is defined as text a reasonable person “ought to have noticed”, which includes:

“(A) a heading in capitals equal to or greater in size than the surrounding text, or in contrasting type, font, or color to the surrounding text of the same or lesser size; and

(B) language in the body of a record or display in larger type than the surrounding text, or in contrasting type, font, or color to the surrounding text of the same size, or set off from surrounding text of the same size by symbols or other marks that call attention to the language.”

(From UCC 1-201(b)(10); same text also appears in UCC 2-103(1)(b)(i).)

The Mozilla Public License, which I recently led the revision of, uses two different approaches, both supported by the UCC’s definition of conspicuous text. In our HTML version, we use text “in contrasting … color to the surrounding text of the same size” – i.e., we color it yellow. (When printed, this comes out as a box around the text.) In our plain text version, we use text “set off … by symbols .. that call attention to the language.” In other words, we use hyphens and vertical bars (|) to draw a box around the text.

So that’s the bottom line answer: in many cases (and certainly in the most common use case by American commercial lawyers), ALL CAPS isn’t required; instead, something “conspicuous” is – which could mean using symbols, colors, font size, or any number of other typographical tricks to make things both visible and easier to read.

Is This Always The Case?

Unfortunately, while most American statutes in this area appear to follow the UCC and require “conspicuous” text, defined quite broadly, this isn’t always true. An interesting list of such exceptions is in the comments to this blog post. These are exceptions; not the rule, but lawyers should be aware of them. Many of the exceptions, interestingly, are where writers of rules have included text that must be included precisely in a form or contract, and the rule-writers have INCLUDED TEXT THAT IS ALL CAPS in their draft text. That is often bad form – but it’s important to follow the rules in such cases.

Citations That Are More Authoritative Than This Blog Post

You’re saying “this is all very interesting, Luis, but I can’t give your random blog post to my lawyer next time he tells me that my Terms of Use need ALL CAPS.” Well, here are what lawyers consider the best kind of citation – a citation to printed books with page numbers, one of them even a publication of the American Bar Association.

“A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting,” Ken Adams, at 15.32-15.41.

“Typography for Lawyers,” Matthew Butterick, at 86-89.

Each of these say (often with more style and detail than I’ve said here) basically the same thing – use ALL CAPS sparingly, if at all. To get a flavor for each of them without buying the books (though I think every commercial lawyer should have both of these books on their desks) the authors have each blogged on these subjects: Adams’ blog post is here and Butterick’s is here.

So Why Do Lawyers Still Use ALL CAPS?

Because we’re risk-averse. Until judges, legislators or our clients demand that we change, we will stick with what works (or perhaps more accurately in this case, we will stick with that hasn’t yet failed).

There are the occasional signs that judges are starting to wake up to the issue: In re Bassett, 285 F.3d 882 (9th Cir. 2002) says “Lawyers who think their caps lock keys are instant “make conspicuous” buttons are deluded”; Stevenson v. TRW, Inc., 987 F.2d 288 (5th Cir. 1993) endorses use of bold or larger type rather than ALL CAPS; and  California courts have even held that ALL CAPS text in an inconspicuous location in the document may not be conspicuous even though it is in ALL CAPS. Broberg v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of America, 171 Cal. App. 4th 912, 922 (2009).

The judicial situation is helpful, but realistically, until more clients demand it, it’s not going to change. So here you go. :)

 

  1. i.e., the part where the contract says “this product I’m selling you could well be broken or unusable, and that isn’t my problem” []
  2. The UCC is a ‘model code’ – basically, states copy the UCC, edit it as they see fit, and then use that for their own commercial code. e.g., UCC 2-316, in California, becomes California Commercial Code 2316, with similar but not necessarily identical text. []

Open Source Initiative Board Meeting in Chicago

I’m celebrating the end of my portion of my trial by … spending all weekend in meetings, specifically the OSI’s annual face-to-face board meeting, which we’re holding this year in Chicago1. It’s been a very productive meeting so far, with lots of good discussion about both our vision and our plan for attacking the future. The organization still has a long way to go but there is a lot of potential here.

  1. Yes, during the NATO Summit. Perhaps not our best move ever. []