A non-coercive copyleft licence

In the world of free culture licences, copyleft describes licences that require derivative works to be distributed under the same licence (or, sometimes, a similar one that guarantees the same freedoms to the public).

But I noticed that, at least in the case of free software licences, copyleft licences tend to be longer and more complicated than some of the wonderfully brief so-called permissive licences. For example, the ISC licence consists of a copyright notice, a 34-word permission notice, and a 76-word disclaimer of warranties and liabilities (if I’ve counted correctly).

For comparison, I asked on a relevant mailing list several weeks ago what the shortest copyleft licence anyone knew of was.

The best answer I got was the Simple Public License (SimPL), at around 300 words.

But during the discussion, I discovered that what I really liked about the brief permissive licences was the fact that they place very few obligations on licensees. The only requirements in the ISC licence, for example, are “that the above copyright notice and this permission notice appear in all copies”. In contrast, copyleft licences for software usually require that the source code of derivative works is published, and the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licence (CC-BY-SA, designed for free cultural works in general, rather than software) requires not only attribution, but also (if I’ve understood it correctly) the removal of attribution if the attributee requests it.

Of course, if I write some software, and you write and distribute a derivative of it, I would like you to publish the source code of your version; but just because I want you to do something doesn’t mean I want to force you to do it.

And if you publish copies of the articles I write here, I may even think you ought to give me proper attribution; but even if I think you ought to do something, that doesn’t mean I think you ought to be forced to do it.

So what I don’t like about the existing copyleft licences I’m aware of is that, if I apply one of them to something I’ve written, I’m implicitly threatening that I might sue you if you don’t publish your source code, or if, when CC-BY-SA applies, you fail to “retain … a URI or hyperlink to the Licensed Material to the extent reasonably practicable”, for example. I don’t want to sue you. I don’t even want to threaten to sue you. As Nina Paley says, “why point a loaded gun at everyone when I’d never fire it?”.

Her solution was to licence her most famous work, Sita Sings the Blues, under the most permissive of permissive licences, CC0, which I understand was designed to be equivalent to a dedication of the work into the public domain, but with some extra words to make it effective in jurisdictions in which such dedications are not considered legally valid.

But I still like the cleverness of copyleft, using copyright law to disarm others who might try to re-monopolize derivatives of a work you intended to be free. Would it be possible to write a copyleft licence that is as impossible to violate as CC0, but which still ensures that all derivative works are just as free? A licence that could never be used to sue people who copy, modify, and distribute the work, but could still be used to defend against legal action brought against users of the work and its derivatives?

Well, I’ve made an attempt. I’m not trained in law, so I don’t know the extent to which my attempt has succeeded. A lot of its text and structure is copied from or based on the SimPL, which was written by a lawyer. It’s almost certainly longer than the shortest possible copyleft licence, but I was impressed by the clarity of language in the SimPL, and thought it was worth sacrificing some brevity to gain a bit of clarity.

I’d like to hear comments from other people before I decide whether to apply this licence to my own works, or apply a modified version, or give up the idea altogether. So, feel free to comment. Here goes:

Draft Non-Coercive Copyleft Licence (NCCL) 1.0

The NCCL applies to a work of creativity (this is called the “Creative Work”) and comes with any rights that I have in it. You agree to the NCCL by relying on it for your right to copy, distribute, or make a derivative work of the Creative Work.

If you get a copy of the Creative Work, then you get the irrevocable perpetual royalty-free right to:

  • Use your copy of the Creative Work for any purpose;
  • Make and use derivative works of it (this is called a “Derived Work”);
  • Copy and distribute it and any Derived Work.

If you rely on this licence for your right to distribute a Derived Work, you must give back to the community by agreeing that the Derived Work is governed by this version of the NCCL or substantially similar terms, without adding further restrictions to the rights provided. If you do not conspicuously announce which such licence governs the Derived Work, then you agree that this version of the NCCL will govern it, and that I and other people are allowed to rely on that fact.

There are some things that you must shoulder:

  • You get NO WARRANTIES. None of any kind;
  • If the Creative Work damages you in any way, you may only recover direct damages up to the amount you paid for it (that is zero if you did not pay anything). You may not recover any other damages, including those called “consequential damages”. (The state or country where you live may not allow you to limit your liability in this way, so this may not apply to you);
  • You are responsible for making sure that you do not use the rights I give you under this licence in a way that would violate anyone else’s rights or any laws that apply to you.

2 thoughts on “A non-coercive copyleft licence

  1. “even if I think you ought to do something, that doesn’t mean I think you ought to be forced to do it.”
    Clearly, you are a much nicer person than most of the rest of us 🙂 Dare I ask if this would also apply to your philosophy of parenting (if any?)

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