That Old GNU Thing: Licensing


It was the creation of the GNU GPL that jump-started the entire free software revolution. Without what is effectively a constitution for the hacker state, the entire GNU project may well have fizzled out before reaching critical mass. So however boring they might seem, copyright licences do matter.

The good news is that a new report [.pdf] with the rather dry title of “An Evaluation of Private Foundation Copyright Licensing Policies, Practices and Opportunities” is well-written and extremely accessible. As its summary explains:

This project, a joint effort of the Berkman Center, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute, with funding from Hewlett and Ford, undertook to examine the copyright licensing policies and practices of a group of twelve private foundations. In particular, it looked at the extent to which charitable foundations are aware of and have begun to use open licenses such as Creative Commons or the GPL. We surveyed foundation staff and leaders and examined a number of examples where foundations have begun to take advantage of new licensing models for materials and resources produced by their own staff, their consultants and their grantees.

Those 12 foundations were:

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Christensen Fund, The Ford Foundation, The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Mozilla Foundation, Omidyar Network, Open Society Institute, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Shuttleworth Foundation, and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. In addition, Berkman Center staff interviewed a representative of a twelfth organization, the Knight Foundation.

As you will notice, many of these are well known in the open source world: Intel's Moore, Canonical/Ubuntu's Shuttleworth, eBay's Omidyar, HP's Hewlett etc. All are increasingly active in applying the ideas underlying open source to fields like open access, open courseware, open education resources, open government, and so on.

The report therefore offers a handy introduction to these relatively new initiatives, summarising how each of them uses open licences to promulgate their work. For example, here's part of the section on the Knight News Challenge, which is:

a five-year program that aims to provide at least $25 million in funding to experimental community news and social media projects working on “innovative ideas that develop platforms, tools and services to inform and transform community news, conversations, and information distribution and visualization.” 34 The News Challenge supports the development of software and technology tools as well as wide variety of content and new business systems and models.


As a result of Knight’s open source policy, all of the written and audiovisual content, software code, technologies, systems and tools developed by its grantees will be available for anyone else in the world to use to pursue the same or similar project, to adapt to new purposes or fields, or to build upon to make something completely new.

One section that I found particularly interesting was under the heading “Why Foundations May Hesitate to Use Open Licenses”. It's natural to focus on the success of open licensing, but in some ways it would be more profitable to look at the failures, since that is where progress needs to be made. The main reasons cited were lack of knowledge, resistance to change, loss of control, concern that grantees may lose revenue and some human rights issues.

It's plain, though, that open licenses are both thriving and spreading, and this report offers a useful snapshot of just far we have come from the trailblazing GNU GPL.

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