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The Limits of Licensing

It might be just a case of me noticing it more, but we seem to be entering a new phase of software license experimentation. Or license confusion, depending on your point of view. There is Ethical Source and I've also seen "no nazis" licenses in circulation.

These licenses are well intended, and the desire to exclude unethical uses isn't new. During the Iraq war there was concern about open source software used in drones and other autonomous military robots. At first knowing that Linux is running killer drones and giant battleships might seem cool, but then as the grim reality of warfare and its human cost sets in it's...not so cool and you begin to think I don't want any association with this or this isn't what I intended. One of my favourite academic talks is on the topic of ethics and technology.

But once you begin defining who can use public software then you need to keep a list of who is using it and issue them with license keys or equivalent technical enforcement mechanisms. And soon enough you've become a proprietary software vendor just like Microsoft in the old days. The proprietary model, or software feudalism, is where the software creator has ultimate control and can decide who runs the program under what conditions. In the rush to achieve control for seemingly good reasons a lot of other people's rights can end up being trampled as collateral damage.

And the people committing human rights violations, like ICE, simply won't care what the software license said. They're already operating in unethical territory, and compared to that a little software infringement is really insignificant. Same applies to the killer drone manufacturers. They will just factor in possible infringement suits as a cost of doing business, and they can hire the most expensive lawyers.

I don't assume that the licenses we have now are the best that's achievable. Probably better can be done. But for my own projects I'm likely to mostly stick with copyleft, mainly because of its sharealike principle of reciprocity.

Tags: licenses, ethics