February 20, 2021

Cross License Foundationsdecentralized stewardship of collaborative projects

Many problems bedevil open licensing. A shocking number stem from one cause: Once a project picks a license, it’s usually stuck that way forever. If you can’t get all the contributors with work in the project to approve a change, you can’t change the terms for the project as a whole. Often, the trouble isn’t so much agreement as just getting back in touch with people.

Wealthy and popular projects avoid this by affiliating with foundations, having contributors transfer or license their work to that centralized entity, and giving the foundation the power to make license changes over time. But that’s expensive, complicated, slow, and frankly pretty alienating. Foundation governance often looks and feels nothing like project governance. Lawyers are nearly always involved. Not a good sign.

Enter Cross License Foundations, a new cure for license lock-in without the overhead of a foundation, fiscal sponsorship, or other centralized entity. I’m happy to announce first prereleases of legal terms and startup worksheet today.

As with a foundation, the key is a kind of contributor license agreement, which gives advance permission to make licensing choices over time. But rather than licensing contributions to a centralized legal entity, contributors license other contributors. Every contributor becomes, in effect, a steward of the project. They can offer the whole project under new or different license terms, subject to rules set out from the beginning, as long as they take a vote of contributors and secure majority approval of their fellow contributors first.

Some projects begin under a share-alike or restricted license, but end up in a place where they’d be better off under permissive terms. Others find the share-alike or restricted licenses they chose become ineffectual, due to changes in technology or industry, and want to move to a new or stronger version. Even projects under generous permissive licenses run into problems with their terms. Some prove incompatible with other, common share-alike licenses. Some lack clarity around important topics like patents. Some are just ancient, and way overdue for an upgrade.

Whether in software, design, art, or music, creative people routinely upgrade to new, improved versions of their tools, materials, and reference works of choice. There is nothing inherently different or difficult about licenses. They’re just text.

Creative people end up treating them like they’re carved in stone because in many circumstances there’s no way to make a change. Contributors aren’t empowered to make mistakes, experiment, learn, or benefit from new work by others. As a result, licensing swirls in thick clouds of esoteric mystery, and our approach to them because reverential, paranoid, and uncharacteristically conservative. Even lawyers slip into treating version 1.0 of a new license like some kind of long-term, unmaintainable, life-critical civil engineering project, like a Golden Gate Bridge, rather than version 1.0 of a license.

We have the tools to break collaborative licensing free again, and make licenses more like all the rest of the arts and crafts we rely on in our work together. Cross License Foundation can make those tools quick, easy, cheap, and intuitive for all projects, not just those with big legal or business backing.

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

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