February 10, 2021

Code Credit License 1.0.0a code-for-credit software license

This post is part of a series, Code Credit License.

With a lot of help from friends and colleagues, I’m pleased to announce version 1.0.0 of a new license that requires credit for developers and projects.

The language and gist are much the same as the Blue Oak Model License, but with an added requirement. If you use the software in your own project—whether that’s a software application, a network service, a movie, an album, a book, an article, an art installation, whatever—credit the project and its contributors as you would other contributors. However your field does credit, the coders get credit, too.

The terms are available in two forms, a complete license and an add-on to other license terms. I rarely recommend license add-ons. But in this case, I’ve had a few requests. I also like the way the add-on isolates the terms about credit from the terms about software licensing more generally. If you want to have a look at the language, but just at the parts about credit, have a look at the add-on. As usual, consider this a flipped form. If something doesn’t make sense, that’s the terms’ fault, not yours.

The concept of credit has a long and incoherent history in open source and software more generally.

Proto-open programmers could be very explicit about their desire to for credit, often for their projects, like GNU or Perl, or their institutions, like MIT or Cal-Berkeley, as much as for themselves. They established protections for the names of their projects, added special requirements to avoid being seen as responsible for others’ ill-conceived changes, tacked on clauses to prevent use of trademarks, and relied on reproduction of copyright notices as a way to show who was responsible for good code. The rise of network services, in lieu of installed applications, broke many of those protections, much as it broke copyleft. What good is a copyright notice if the public never sees it, much less any copy of the software?

Attempts to replace those losses have attracted almost as much scorn as attempts to fix copyleft. The Open Source Initiative approved the Common Public Attribution License way back when. But not without a lot of brouhaha, including opponents attempting to brand it “badgeware”. If I have any cards left, I’ll show them here: I’m constantly struck by how differently company credit, in the form of trademark protection, and hacker credit, in the form of by-name recognition, have been treated differently. Often a union or professional association would step in to expound and enforce credit norms for individuals and freelancers. We haven’t seen that yet. Just awards for the select few, often academics or quasi-tenured, captains of industrial labs.

Meanwhile, parts of the industry further from the pure, software-for-software’s-sake core, but adjacent to more established fields, have largely adopted their elders’ conventions. We’ve all seen credits at the end of a video game. Games are software, too. These days, if you wait around long enough, you’ll often see programmers and software companies in credits for feature films, and not just for special-effects films and 3D animation. Pixar contributed a novel tradition there: naming babies born to staff during production. We’ve also seen occasional pleas for citation, as for GNU parallel, clearly informed by the academic form of the rat race: publish, and get cited, or perish.

There is no IMDB or AllMusic for software. There’s the start of one for games, which is possible because games have credits to aggregate. credits.txt came into being to fill that gap for web services, and I’ve done such credits with ease for projects like License Zero. That was a crucial building block for the new Code Credit License, which also specifies conventions for distributed software. Where there aren’t existing conventions, we have to invent them. But not from scratch.

If you’re okay giving your work away for literally nothing in return, so that users can treat it as if they themselves wrote it, that is a valid choice. The Blue Oak Model License is the best set of terms I know. But if you want credit, I think it’s your right. You deserve it, morally and commercially. So I’m proud to help put a license out in the world that expresses that, and backs it up legally.

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

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