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All content by Kyle E. Mitchell, who is not your lawyer.

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Contributor Councilsrelicensing without foundation, BDFL, or unanimity

Sometimes open source licenses need to change. A new version of the license comes out. A license compatibility issue crops up. A legal development creates uncertainty. Right now, very few open source projects with more than a few developers have any practical way to respond. Projects that can respond do so by centralization of intellectual property, in the hands of a foundation or a BDFL, who do so unilaterally.

I’ve begun work on an alternative, tentatively called contributor councils, that can offer old code on new public license terms for specific purposes, by vote.

We can build a contributor council using cross-licenses. In addition to the public license for a project, like the GPL, which licenses everyone, contributors can also grant special licenses to each other, as contributors. These licenses give each contributor the power to offer all the contributions to the project on different public license terms, subject to specific rules:

  1. Relicense only for specific, approved effects: to upgrade to a newer official version of the license, to work around a license compatibility issue with another project, or to address problems created by legal developments.

  2. Secure the votes of a set number of other contributors, using an e-mail and social-media-based proposal, response, and announcement protocol.

  3. Choose new public license terms that continue to disclaim warranties and limit liability.

  4. Choose new public license terms that continue to require preservation of attribution notices, like copyright notices.

Any contributor can initiate this process, carry it through, and use their contributor council license to offer the whole project on new terms, if they succeed.

I’ve begun sketching legal terms. There is a lot of thinking still to be done, especially on the voting process.

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.

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