Documentation Licensing and Its Discontents

Benj. Mako Hill mako at
Tue Dec 14 13:09:00 UTC 2004


There was a long conversation on IRC yesterday about documentation
licensing and not everybody was or has been very happy with the
current status in Canonical. Here's the super-abbreviated history:

A month or so ago, Mark Shuttleworth announced that he wanted to use
the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) for all Canonical sponsored
Documentation projects while individual authors working on Ubuntu were
free to release work under a license of their choice.

For a number of reasons expressed yesterday on IRC and also on the
list over the last while, many people are not particularly happy with
the GFDL and were hesitant to put their own works under the license. A
good summary of the problems that people have with the GFDL (and some
that not many have as well) is available here:

Some people had suggested that the Creative Commons
Attribution-Sharealike 2.0 license was a better choice. It will not
solve the problem with Debian compatibility at the moment but it will
reduce the problems significantly. It will also address a number of
other issues people have with the license.

It is a standard copyleft content license (similar in spirit to the
the GPL). It's a lot more simple than the GFDL (there are no clauses
on invariant sections, front covertexts, back covertexts,
acknowledgments, dedications, endorsements, copying in quantity,
transparent copies, etc.). It does not have the problems commonly
described as "bugs."  There has been movement by the FSF toward a new
draft to address these problem but there has been no public
announcement and many people have been frustrated waiting.

Since we are not taking advantage of the special clauses in the GFDL,
and have no intention of doing so, the CC-BY-SA is seen by a number of
people (both inside and outside of Ubuntu) as a simplification of our
current intentions and even step up. People on Wikipedia have brought
up switching away from the GFDL but, because they can't reach all the
copyright holders, they are unable to do this.

Another benefit of the CC licenses is that they are translated (both
in terms of the language in terms of the legal codes) widely. All CC
2.0 licenses require attribution (evidently, 95% of people chose
attribution clauses in the first version of the license).

I approached Mark about this yesterday and he said he would be OK with
releasing Canonical's Works for Hire under CC's BY-SA if it's
something that the Doc Team thinks would be useful.

So here is my proposal. I'd like feedback so we can move ahead quickly
on this:

* We *are* going to be writing GFDL documentation. There are many
  projects (the GNOME Manuals come to mind) that we want to
  collaborate on and that are issued under the GFDL. This work will
  have to be distributed under the GFDL (we can't combine incompatible

* Canonical sponsored documentation should be released all of wiki or
  other documentation in either the CC-BY-SA or dual licensed as the
  GFDL and CC-BY-SA.

  This second might be a nice compromise as it will allow other people
  (or ourselves) incorporate our documentation into GFDL works and
  will also allow us to publish books under the less messy CC-BY-SA.

* The majority of doc team documentation would be able to be issued
  under whatever license the author/copyright holder chooses of
  course. That said, it would be *very* convenient if we could all
  combine our documents under a single (or two) compatible or
  identical licenses: namely the CC BY-SA alone or the BY-SA and the

I'd love feedback. I'd also like to know:

* Are there things about the GFDL people like that are missing from
  the BY-SA?

* Do other people the BY-SA as a step up from the GFDL?

* Does the dual licensing scheme sound like a reasonable compromise?


Benjamin Mako Hill
mako at

More information about the ubuntu-doc mailing list