The FLOSS License Drafter's Responsibility to the Community

Thursday 4 December 2008 by Bradley M. Kuhn

I finally set aside some time to read my old boss' open letter responding to criticisms of the FDL process. I read gladly his discussion of the responsibilities of software freedom license stewardship.

I've been involved with the drafting of a number of FLOSS licenses (and exceptions to existing licenses). For example, I helped RMS a little with the initial FDL 1.0 drafting (the license at issue here); I was a catalyst for the creation of Artistic 2.0 and advised that process; and, I was heavily involved with the creation of the AGPL, and somewhat with the GPLv3. From these experiences, I know that, just like when a core developer gets annoyed when kibitzed by a user who just downloaded the program and is missing something obvious, we license drafters are human and often have the “did this person even read all the stuff we've written on this issue?” knee-jerk response to criticism. However, we all try to put that aside, and be ready to respond and take seriously any reasonable criticism. I am glad that RMS has done so here. The entity that controls future versions of a license for which authors often use an “or later” term holds great power. As the clichéd Spiderman saying goes, with great power, comes great responsibility.

The FSF as a whole, and RMS in particular, have always know this well and take it very seriously. Indeed, years ago, when I was still at FSF, RMS and I wrote an essay together on a closely related issue. This recent response on FDL reiterates some of those points, but with a real-world example explaining the decision making process regarding the reasonable exercise of that power to, in turn, grant rights and freedoms rather than take them away.

The key quote from his letter that stands out to me is: our commitment is that our changes to a license will stick to the spirit of that license, and will uphold the purposes for which we wrote it. This point is fundamental. As FLOSS license drafters, we must always, as RMS says, abide by the highest ethical standards to uphold the spirit that spurred the creation of these licenses.

Far from being annoyed, I'm grateful for those who assume the worst of intentions and demand that we justify ourselves. For my part, I try to answer every question I get at conferences and in email about licensing policy as best I can with this point in mind. We in the non-profit licensing sector of the FLOSS world have a duty to the community of FLOSS users and programmers to defend their software freedom. I try to make every decision, on licensing policy (or, indeed, any issue) with that goal in mind. I know that my colleagues at the FSF and at the many other not-for-profit organizations always do the same, too.

Posted on Thursday 4 December 2008 at 14:52 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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