Open Source WordsΒΆ

I’m working on laying the seed content for a new wiki that I hope to launch in a few weeks. I want the wiki to be a free text/open source, and I have been giving some thought to the best way to accomplish this. This is, as it turns out, is pretty hard to accomplish: open source software licences are designed (not surprisingly) for software, and while Creative Commons Licences are great, I don’t think they support community authorship in a way that matches with my ideals/gaols.

The brilliance of the GPL (to my mind) is the way that it equalizes the relationship between all contributors (big and small) and between the “authors” and the “users.” While in a lot of open source projects these groups/interests overlap, they don’t sometimes and those cases where those interests might obstruct the freedom of the work, the GPL equalizes it.

There are two mechanisms in the GPL (to my mind) that make this possible: first, the requirement that source code be made available (and reproducible) with any distribution means that you don’t get anything extra because you were/are the original author of the code. The second, is the “viral” or “share alike” provisions where you can trust that anything released under the GPL will stay under the GPL.

While these mechanisms increase freedom and equity in situations where there are a select group of contributors and one legal author [1] the freedoms are most powerful when the boundaries between contributor and author and user are blurred.

This is all very basic stuff in the area of software freedom after all. The truth is that, as near as I understand there aren’t terms that can be used to get a similar effect with non-code projects (exactly.) There are a couple of copy left licenses, issued by Creative Commons and even the Free Software Foundation, but there are problems with both of these strategies. Here are the issues as I see them:

The GNU FDL is designed, primarily for software manuals and documentation in support of free software, and is strategically designed for this kind of text. It, as a result, lacks a certain... grace and elegance for dealing with other kinds of text, particularly when dealing with derivative and physical reproductions of a work.

In contrast, the Creative Commons Licenses [2] (CC) don’t have a concept of “source,” so that while they provide the same sorts of rights regarding distribution of work (and thereby equalize some of the rights between distributor/user), they don’t facilitate derivative work in the same way that open source licenses do.

I’m mostly worried about the following scenario. Say I release a piece of audio-art in a lossless (high quality; source) format (eg. FLAC/WAV) as well as MP3/OGG file (lower quality; compiled) under a CC license that permits derivative work under a viral/share alike terms. Then you turn around, re-equalize, and mix my audio-art with some other similarly licensed audio, and release it as a derivative work. That’s cool. But the derivative work needed be in the higher quality format, because CC doesn’t have a concept of source. Not having a concept of source doesn’t effect the possibility of derivative works, but it does mean that derivative works are second-class citizens, as it were. CC doesn’t equalize this relationship.

If I’m wrong about this interpretation, I’d love to be corrected, for the record.

For works where there’s a single author, having derivative works as second-class citizens isn’t a bad thing, and I can imagine that it would be seen as a feature in some cases. In cases where a text/work is authored by a community this is a major flaw.

I hear that there’s a project to Simplify the GFDL (or provide a way to use the GPL for documents/texts) that might remedy these problems (haven’t dug through it yet). In the mean time, I’m wondering what folks think on the subject.

My inclination is to just use the GPL with the specification that “source” would be some sort of plain text (ASCII/UTF-8/UTF-16) compatible file. That achieves the goal required, without too much fuss or concocting a new license that would prove incompatible down the road. I think mandating a particular format (markdown/org-mode/xhtml/LaTeX) is a bit too strict, but I’d hate to see a document developed in the open, released as a PDF derivative without making (say) LaTeX sources available.

Though I’ll be the first to acknowledge the irony that for non-software works, the “source” isn’t “human readable source code” but rather “machine readable data source.”

The only real practical concern is that if the FSF releases a 2.0 of the FDL (or a SFDL) that becomes the a standard for free/open source non-software/text projects then going with the GPL might make that a difficult/bothersome transition on that. So the question, seems to be would providing the option to upgrade to the GNU FDL make sense (eg. this work is licensed under the GPL [with an understanding of what the source is] version 3 or (at your choice) a later version [or a later version of the GFDL]).

Anyway, back to writing.

[1]Copyleft and the GPL doesn’t to be fair, eliminate copyrights, as all code released under the GPL will (theoretically, eventually, should a public domain ever be reinstated in the US) revert to the public domain as described in the constitution. GPL is, in many ways an extension of copyright, albeit one designed to destabilize the copyright system.
[2]There are many flavors of Creative Commons’ licenses, which provide various freedoms. The Attribution-Share Alike License is most analogous to the GFDL/GPL.


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  • tychoish
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tychoish is a blog about software, science fiction, community, music, knitting, and economies with particular attention to their past and future histories. Produced in Brooklyn by tycho garen.