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

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August 15, 2019

Require Credit For Your Softwarea general-purpose legal tool to require credit for open work

I’ve received several e-mails over the years from open source software developers asking if there’s a good public software license that requires credit for their work. I’m happy to announce a project to write a good, affirmative answer. Have a look at the latest draft.

I’ve pointed out before that typical attribution requirements in open source licenses aren’t really about credit. That illusion, which was pretty easy to maintain in the installed-software era, crumbled as software-as-a-service rose.

Some time back, I also sketched a license that required credit specifically for components used to build web services. I’ve worked with some other folks on a bare bones, plain-text standard for SaaS credits, too.

All of those ideas come together in the new legal tool. Its effect is to make giving credit a requirement of the license, whether the software gets used to make other software, a service, or other kinds of goods or services, like motion pictures, music, and so on.

Many other creative endeavors have strongly ingrained, formally and informally enforced expectations that fair credit will be given where due. Negotiations for top billing, possessory credits, and other deviations can be fierce and contentious. Still others can be welcome and just. Orson Welles famously included cinematographer Gregg Toland’s name on the same card as his own for Citizen Kane.

Software still lacks those conventions, even as we’re quick to point out the reputational and experiential benefits of an open source portfolio, and willing to accept reputation as just compensation for permissively licensed contributions. The very limited way that legal attribution requirements functioned as a kind of credit caps the benefits open source developers can see from their generosity. Fundamentally, credit stayed within the guild: only those with technical acumen knew where to look for copyright notices, or to look for them at all. Outside programmingdom, folks erroneously attribute technical success to technical figureheads: iPhone to Steve Jobs, Facebook to Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft Office to Bill Gates, and so on. There is simply no IMDB or IBDB-like database of who-worked-on-what for software, with the possibly developing exception of video games.

The new legal tool aims to fill the void. Developers of all kinds of software deserve credit for their work. Licenses can help establish new norms and bring more basic fairness to software production.

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

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