Against Meta-Licensing

This proposal, to declare multiple licenses “compatible” with the Creative Commons (CC) Attribution-Sharealike license (BY-SA) in a kind of meta-license came out a few weeks after the FDL backdoor was proposed on the license-discuss list.

Again, it is a bad idea for a number of reasons.

These Licenses Have Major Incompatibilities In Intent and Effect.

The proposal mentions BY-SA, the GNU Free Documentation License (FDL), the Free Art License (FAL) and the BBC Creative Archive Licence (BBC-CA) as sharing “a common goal”. This simply is not true. BY-SA is intended to promote a remix culture and/or prevent “orphan works”. The FDL is designed to allow political texts to be attached to computer manuals. The FAL is designed to create collaborative artworks. And the BBC-CA license is designed to enable the public to access work they have paid for.

Even if we accept for a moment that these very different intentions might lead to similar licenses, for the examples under consideration here they have not. BY-SA is a reasonably strong “copyleft” license. The FDL is a mix of copyleft and an immutable license more similar to BY-ND. The FAL is limited to artworks and has legally vague definitions of a work and various licence. requirements. BBC-CA is non-commercial and limited to UK citizens.

These are very, very different practical effects. The only way to make licences with such different practical effects compatible is to rewrite them. If the licenses can be made similar enough to be covered by a single “commons deed” then it would only be egos that would prevent the licenses being combined. But the only justification for this project is that the licenses won’t be rewritten and so CC have decided they need to work around this.

Declaring Such Incompatible Licenses Compatible Opens The Door For Vanity Licenses And Shackled Licenses

Once the Free Art License is declared “compatible”, any other minor license that is drafted should be declared “compatible” and work will be driven incompatibly to it. Although the FAL pre-dates the CC licenses, it has very few users and is not as general as BY-SA. It should be deprecated, not promoted, and certainly not promoted by CC in the name of solving the problem of “incompatibility”. Placing a CC badge over proliferating licenses will simply reproduce the OSI license approval trainwreck with an additional layer of paperwork.

Once CC claim that the FDL and BBC-CA licenses are “compatible” with BY-SA, Microsoft can seek to have a copyleft license that locks content to Windows declared compatible and News Corp. can seek to have a copyleft license that adds advertising and allows some proprietary use declared compatible. These are no less “compatible” than the licenses Lessig discusses, and any refusal will appear politically motivated.

This Mechanism Makes BY-SA Untrustworthy

When any vanity or free-but-shackled license can get itself rubber stamped by CC’s “compatibility” board and added to the meta-license, and have a backdoor added to BY-SA to allow derivatives to be placed under it, licensing becomes a mess of unpredictable additional licenses that can change or themselves allow cross licensing at every revision.

This destroys confidence in BY-SA and the meta-license, as they may at any time be altered to give work or derivatives away to a license with features that have negative practical effects for a user, group or company.

Not Every Licensing Problem Has A Licensing Solution

Not every licensing problem has a licensing solution. And CC’s solutions to commons fragmentation under the banner of “compatibility” are the wrong solutions to the wrong description of the problem.

If CC are worried about commons fragmentation they should work to reduce the number of licenses, not produce yet another layer of licensing over their already confusing licenses. And they should get rid of their NC license, which is the main cause of incompatibility. Since BY-SA is the best copyleft license for general cultural work, logically they should work to replace other licenses with BY-SA. But if they are unwilling to do this work they should deprecate BY-SA in favour of the FDL. It is not as good as BY-SA, but at least it is a stable target.

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