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Why relicense Fedora documentation and wiki content

It is once again my happy duty to help shepherd Fedora content to a better licensing position (as I did three years ago.)  We previously moved Fedora documentation from the GNU FDL to the OPL, moving the wiki content to the OPL at the same time.  This current relicensing is very important for the Fedora Project overall, and is worth the risks involved.  Hopefully, this article provides sufficient justification and risk assessment.

There are a small number of email threads you can catch up on, all of which are findable through this canonical thread on fedora-advisory-board.  I am writing this blog post as a canonical location for my arguments and reasoning, then I can refer to it endlessly.  (You know, canonically.) It may form the basis for a wiki page that represents a more formal Fedora stance, but for now, these are just my opinions, YMMV, IANAL, TINLA.

Here is the scope of what this relicensing covers:

Here’s the uncomfortable and most risky part:  to do this, we have to use clause 2(a) in the Contributors License Agreement that allows the Fedora Project to relicense (sublicense) contributions:

… a perpetual, non-exclusive, worldwide, fully paid-up, royalty free, irrevocable copyright license to reproduce, prepare derivative works of, publicly display, publicly perform, sublicense, and distribute your Contribution and such derivative works; …

Why? Because it is vital that Fedora get off a content island and join the rest of the world.  Because the problem of gaining permission from every person who ever edited the Fedora wiki is a huge task, and it’s not necessary. This is why the current CLA has this clause, which should be understood by everyone who agreed to the CLA, but I expect people have different levels of understanding about how the Fedora CLA works.

I’ve been referring to this clause as the nuclear option, an expression that means, “The one option you keep available in case you ever need it while praying that you never ever ever need it.”  A bit dramatic, yes, but I think it reflects the feelings people have around the issue.  Folks just plain don’t like it when you go and relicense their work. At least we should explain why.

Why is it a really great idea to relicense Fedora content to the Creative Commons (CC) Attribution-Share Alike (BY SA) 3.0 unported license?

  1. We are relicensing from the OPL (Open Publications License) 1.0.  The author and once-and-only-ever maintainer of the OPL wrote two years ago why people should stop using his license in favor of the CC licenses.  Please read that, it is well reasoned and makes compelling arguments, even more so because it is from the OPL’s author.  He wrote that two years ago, but quotes himself from 2003 when he recommended using a Creative Commons license instead.  ‘Nuff said.
  2. Fedora’s legal advisors, specifically Richard Fontana, highly recommend a switch from the OPL to the CC BY SA.
  3. We are on an island nearly alone with the OPL.  One of our main fellow inhabitants is Red Hat, who relicensed their content under the OPL without options so it could be used by the Fedora Project (and developed here, in advance of the next version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux.)  Since Red Hat is willing to change, we can move from a tiny archipelago to the largest continent of open content under the flag of the CC BY SA.
    1. Ironically, one reason Fedora switched from the GNU FDL to the OPL was the idea of being downstream of content from Red Hat’s professional writing team.
  4. Other organizations that have content we can reuse in Fedora and contribute back to, such as Wikipedia and GNOME, have switched or are switching to the CC BY SA.  Why does this matter? For one easy example, we can write a definitive history of Fedora, host it on Wikipedia as the upstream, then package it as part of the ‘about-fedora’ package.
  5. If you’ve never looked at how much open content there is on e.g. and Wikicommons, please look.  For content authors, this is going from practically zero useful open media available to tens of millions of photographs, diagrams, and so forth that we can not only freely reuse, but we can contribute back to.
  6. The formal content work of the Fedora Docs Team flows back and forth with the wiki.  It wouldn’t be possible to relicense just the DocBook-based guides, such as the Release Notes, Installation Guide, or Security Guide.  These all have content that may or did come from the wiki.  There is an interdependency that cannot be easily unwound, nor is there a reason to, as long as both the wiki and the guides are using compatible licensing.

To be honest, this change is probably a bit overdue.  Most of the time, though, you can’t push the river, it has to flow as fast as it can in the direction it wants.

Any thoughts about all of this?

(In this article I’ve been referring to the unported version of the CC BY SA 3.0 license.  At the time of this writing (20090707 ~0300 UTC), I have just asked for clarity on what Fedora’s position should be with regards to ported and unported CC licenses.  When this is clear, I will update this article to reflect. Updated based on Spot and Luis saying ‘unported’.)