License Zero

gainful open software development

June 13, 2019

The Gospel In Brief Share with fellow sharers. Charge everyone else.

License Zero stands for a simple idea. Share your work with other open developers, and support your work by charging everyone else. Bring your relationship with users back into balance.

It’s simple for users, too. Contribute back in kind, in the open. If you can’t or won’t do that, contribute cash, to support those who do. If that’s something you wanted to do anyway, you now have the perfect excuse. You have to.

There is nothing new, innovative, or closed about this idea. It’s been part of free software practice from very early on. It’s gone by many names: selling exceptions, dual licensing, public-private licensing. The story is the same.

Individuals and large firms alike have used this idea to advance their work. In other creative fields, like photography, design, music, and film, it’s even more common. It is strangely uncommon in software.

There is nothing special about software that sets it apart from other outputs of creative energy, breaking the link between value and cost, monetary or otherwise.

There is nothing peculiar to programming that makes unfair outcomes for other kinds of workers somehow fair to you.

There is no special rule that says programmers, rather than managers, financiers, designers, or other industry players, bear the whole burden of the common good.

There’s no pretending there’s no money in open source, or shouldn’t be. It’s already there, and not hard to see.

There is nothing wrong with asking something in return for the fruits of your time, talent, and labor.

Reputation is a form of compensation. It’s worth a great deal, until you have enough. Open source has long recognized, protected, and built reputation value. But those mechanisms, like differentiating official versions and giving developers credit, broke down over time. Website operators don’t have to give public credit to developers of their server-side libraries, frameworks, or tools. Vendors ship without notices, and without lists of changes.

Open source long recognized the value of leveraging open work to encourage more openness, too. Longer, in fact, than it has been called “open source”. But those mechanisms have also broken down over time. Especially copyleft. AGPL doesn’t actually mean “free for free software” for dev tools or service components. Instead, it’s complicated. Too complicated.

License Zero shows that an idea of the past can work today, especially for independent developers. But only if we fix and maintain what has fallen into disrepair. That means not just licenses, but other kinds of developer-to-user communication. All that’s been lost or imbalanced in single-minded pursuit of good user experience.

Imbalance impacts developers directly, but comes around to affect users, too. “Openness” and “freedom” aren’t about privileging one side of a relationship—consumption—over the other—production—but about elevating that relationship on more enlightened principles, principles that eliminate the distinction between consumer and producer. Sharing and sharing alike, not supply chain management. Contributor and contributor, peer and peer, not developer and user, not customer and staff.

License Zero has published a few “new” licenses. There are no new ideas in them. License Zero has released “new” tools. There are no truly new ideas in those, either. License Zero has offered a “new” service. It’s a service-bureau twist on basic, back-office licensing practice.

Use those licenses or don’t. Use those tools or don’t. Use or don’t. But face the imbalances in your work, as both producer and consumer of software, and do something to correct them, before the movement, or your love for it, shakes itself apart.

Share your experiences. Share your tools. But more than that, share the problem. Exude the confidence that hackers, individually and especially collectively, can solve it. These relationships, and their discontents, are part of programming. Programming must be hackable. Programming itself must be hacked.