Chris Jensen


The Lerna license: Evolving FOSS licensing

You’ve likely heard by now of the change to the Lerna license that (briefly) blocked it’s use by ICE collaborators, and the reversion of that change.

Within moments of the license change, it was both widely supported, and widely condemned. Some going as far as to call it “an attack on open source”.

The basis for this claim, and a lot of the opposition to the license change, is some variant of “but it’s not free”.

But that’s true only if the only freedom you value is the freedom to copy computer code without restriction. There are a lot of other freedoms out there, and some of them in pretty dire need of attention in 2018.

What about freedom to escape persecution? Freedom from cruel and unusual punishment? Freedom to a childhood free from psychological trauma? Freedom from harassment by officers of the law? Freedom of association? Freedom of movement within borders? Freedom from slavery? Freedom from surveillance? Freedom from interference in family and home life?

Free, as in speech, is nice, but free, as in freedom from tyranny, is nicer.

In 2018, examples of how open source software is used in attacks on these freedoms are, sadly, all too common.

It’s no small irony that Richard Stallman (president of the Free Software Foundation) doesn’t own a phone or browse the internet because of privacy and surveillance issues, when that surveillance is often built upon free open source software (FOSS).

That mass surveillance is enabled by FOSS has not stopped the Free Software Foundation from continuing to insist on Freedom 0: “the freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose”.

Freedom 0 was a useful line in the sand to draw when FOSS was still emerging in the 90’s and 2000’s and battling the incumbent proprietary giants. But FOSS won, it is the incumbent now and has outgrown Freedom 0.

The same software giants that once opposed FOSS have now embraced it, and are complicit in a new and nastier attack on freedoms, to which FOSS has become an unwitting accomplice.

To demand unwavering support for software giant’s freedom to profit from harm is not a neutral stance, it squarely aligns the FOSS movement with the giants it once fought and the harm they are causing.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone who has personally felt the impact of the harm being caused by unconscionable use of open source would argue that restricting the freedom to copy computer code is a greater harm.

If your freedom 0 in 2018 is the freedom to copy and run computer code, you need to check your privilege.

Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander. Holocaust Museum, Washington DC

For a wonderful moment, a huge open source project almost declared itself “not a bystander”, and many in the community rose up behind them.

The Lerna license episode was not an attack on the open source movement, but the birthing pains of an evolution of open source.

If free, as in freedom from tyranny, is your kind of freedom, do check out the NoHarm license.

Originally published at on September 1, 2018.

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