Monday, September 10, 2007

"Open Source" License for User Generated Content

The best thing about the popular open source licenses is that they are all very well known, so you can just state Apache or GPL or MPL and people understand exactly what they can and can't do with the code, and what they can and can't do with their extensions to the code. In order to be effective, a license should be:

  • Credible - Written and supported by a credible organization without a commercial agenda.
  • Understandable - The ins and outs of the license should be understood by non-IP lawyers.
  • Well known - The end user should recognize the license and understand how it works or at least know someone who can explain it to them.

    Recently I have been evaluating licenses for user generated content for a new project. I was disappointed to see that most sites with user generated content have arcane, legalistic terms and conditions and that there is no consistency from site to site. The problem when you don't use a well known license is that you end up having to make convoluted explanations and your users are still confused no matter what. Check out paragraph 9 of Yahoo's Terms of Service to learn what rights you have to any photos you have uploaded to Flickr or this article where Google clarifies its terms and conditions for your Google Docs documents.

    Since the Creative Commons is a repository for authors and artists to share their work, I checked out their license to see if it was relevant. The creative commons license is cafeteria-style and is perfectly suited for user generated content! I have long been a big fan of commercial friendly licenses and have released a lot of my early code into the public domain, with the Java license when I was at j.rad, and with the Apache license when I was at ActiveGrid. Therefore, my inclination is to go with the Creative Commons Attribution (by) license, which allows commercial use of works with attribution. In open source terms, it is most like MPL+Attribution.

    I am pleased that the open source principles that software engineers know have made it into the content world, and that we will be able to use a credible, understandable, and well known license for content in our new project!
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