Why I Care About Licensing

Both on the blog and on Twitter, I have ranted at length at projects missing licensing information altogether, or not providing licensing information on specific files, or providing conflicting licensing information. As you can imagine, this is a topic that I’m very attached to, which is why I have been following REUSE guidelines to make sure that all my (currently active) projects follow the specification.

Unfortunately this care is not shared with many developers, even those who consider themselves part of the Free Software movement, and this causes friction, poisons the well in both directions, and overall is detrimental to the community and the movement. Even more so than when people care deeply and disagree on the “correct” licensing terms.

While I am most definitely not a lawyer, and I speak most definitely only for myself and not my employer, let me try to give you a run down of what’s going on here.

First of all, we need to start with a simplification, and handwavey accept that without an explicit license allowing it, the distribution, modification, and integration of source code is not allowed, or at least that’s the way we perceive it in the wider world. And Free Software licenses, more or less permissive, spell out the terms with which distribution and usage are allowed.

It Is But An Example

As far as I can tell, there’s no provision anywhere that source code used in documentation is exempt from these limitations, except insofar as the license on the documentation itself would apply if not otherwise overridden. And that’s how I started engaging with Adafruit: the documentation for most of their CircuitPython libraries provide a lot of useful examples — and as it turns out they were already released with an open-source license (MIT), but that was not obvious when looking at the docs sites themselves. So I convinced them to add SPDX headers to all their source code, including the examples — and now you can read the example and see immediately which license it’s released under. Isn’t that cool?

Unfortunately, sometimes developers are stubborn and find adding two lines to their documentation examples a distraction, and argue against it, making it annoying for others to use their example source code without either infringing the copyright or going the long way to find the right answers.

Websites, PDFs, Books, they are all equal

But this goes to the double for code that is explicitly written only as example material! Let me take a bit of a detour — my wife went through the awesome Python Crash Course a few months ago. While it suffers from a few of the issues I already complained about when it comes to splitting names, the book is fairly well written and has hands-on exercise that provide enough of a stretch to “my first Python project”. In the later parts of the book, one of the long-building exercise is writing a clone of Space Invaders with PyGame, which turned out to be interesting not just for her writing it, but for myself reviewing it as well, as game programming is definitely not a skill I ever spent time acquiring.

Now, remember I said there’s space to stretch? While the book guides you through building the very basic framework for “Alien Invasion” with full code to go with it, it leaves a lot of holes to be filled. Not just the assets (that it pretty much suggests you Google for and find somewhere online, without any discussion on what you can and cannot use — shout out to the Noun Project which I use for my own projects nowadays), but also some of the more advanced gameplay, and a lot of the refactoring — the way you write the game following the book is definitely more aimed at teaching than at maintaining. So when my wife finished with the book, I started showing her examples of how to refactor the code and introduce new features. So while the basic skeleton is the same as the original from the book, the version she ended up with was nearly fully rewritten. And it’s all in a Git repository!

But she has nothing to show for it. The source code in the book does not provide any licensing information. When I reached out to Eric Matthes (the book’s author) on Twitter asking him if he’d consider applying an opensource license to the code, so that she could publish it on her GitHub account to show off to some of her friends – and with an explicit mention that I’d have liked to use it as a base to test out BeeWare projects and see to contribute to some – he said he’d think about it, but that he wouldn’t feel right to release it under a permissive license that would allow someone to take it and sell it on AppStore and similar. So her options are to ignore licensing and publish the code anyway (after all, nobody cares, and I’m sure I can find plenty of people who did exactly that), or to comply with the (lack of) license and keep it for herself, and only show her friends a video of it working. She went for the latter, as we already had a long discussion of copyright when J Salmeron brought up the topic (and dang, we missed the opportunity to shake his hand as we were standing right behind him at the Beast in Black concert in Amsterdam last year!)

Provide It And They Will Build

There is one case that, personally, drained my will to contribute to an ecosystem even more than the example above. After all, Python Crash Course is a great book, and the only really good reason to publish the code is for “bragging rights” — which is not to say it’s not something, but it’s not the end of the world either.

When a commercial vendor is providing you with an extensible ecosystem for you to build upon, but doesn’t play by the same rules, it’s just… disappointing. In this case the issue is with Saleae, the manufacturer of the Logic Pro 16 analyzer I use for a bunch of different things. You may have noticed me providing screenshots off it when talking about fake candles and infrared. As a vendor, Saleae has very good user support: when I complained on Twitter that I wasted two hours chasing ghosts because I didn’t realise I forgot to connect the USB cable to the analyzer, and the software didn’t make it clear enough it was showing me demo garbage, they engaged, asked me what I would have done differently, and delivered the fix in less than a month. That was awesome support.

So where does it go wrong? Well, in June they updated their software to support Python-based extensions for analysis of specific protocols. I was actually interested in adding support for IR decoding to make my life easier in my TV controlling project, and so when they posted that one of their employees built a duty cycle measure tool and posted it on GitHub I was thrilled!

Except… the repository is there, the source code is there, but there is no license. The extension is pretty much a tutorial by itself on how to build what I needed, but it’s coming with no license attached, and as such I can’t use its code as a base for my own extension. And while I could possibly learn from it, it’s also a poison pill… there’s no license, if I copy it too literally, am I infringing copyright? Maybe, who knows? The author says I should «feel free to look, copy and use [his] Logic 2 extensions in any way [I] would like», but that’s not exactly a very comforting statement when you’re contributing while part of a company.

Final Thoughts

Just be yourself (this is pre-recorded). If you do care about Free Software, please take licensing seriously. If you don’t care about Free Software, because you don’t believe in the ideals behind, or you’re just not part of the ecosystem, then I can’t really blame you for disrespecting licenses, but then again if you rely on proprietary software license, you probably should respect all of them. It’s the same problem with software piracy.

I do believe that the folks at REUSE are doing a great service for all of us by making it possible to spell out licenses clearly and openly, and making it easy for others to modify and copy the code that we want to be out there in the world. It doesn’t take so much time to use the tool to add a few lines to a text file, or an additional text file for binary files. Please take the chance to sort this out!

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