I know, I know, you're probably thinking CC0 or WTFPL or something along those lines. But the thing is, the way I see it, people have a right to redistribute anything, even if the author doesn't want them to and didn't release it under a free license; once someone receives it from the author it is no longer any of the author's business what they do with it. (Yes, I'm aware the law says otherwise; I believe the law is wrong.)

My reasoning behind this is unimportant to the question, but for anyone wondering, it basically boils down to the technical nature of the act of conveying a copyrighted work: you're really doing nothing more than altering the state of a physical object you own and then giving it to the recipient, or alternatively altering the state of something that the recipient already owns in the same way. You have a right to modify your own property however you want, and you have a right to give your property to whoever wants it. And anyone can grant you permission to modify their property, at which point you have a right to do it without needing anyone else's permission.

Because of all this, bringing copyright infringement claims against a license violator in court would constitute inciting an initiation of force against them. According to the non-aggression principle (a libertarian idea I strongly believe in) this is not acceptable. So if I license something under CC0, and distribute it to person A, who then in turn distributes it to person B, it's possible that, according to the law, person B won't have a right to further distribute it, and person A will have the right to bring charges against B for doing so.

I don't want this possibility. I want to use my copyright protection as an opportunity to, wherever I can, have the law reflect the rights I feel people actually have. This, I believe, is the point of a copyleft license, which is why I've mostly been using the GPL for my code. But today I realized that this is not sufficient, as it obligates distribution of source code along with binaries. I'd rather people distribute source code, but they have a right to give me the binaries whether they want to distribute code or not.

Essentially, I'd want my license to work as if copyright didn't exist. A license that permits everything except legal action of any kind, even on derivative works. I want to ensure people's freedom not just in the way people can use public domain stuff, but I want to enable anyone to do anything with my work, and any other work the law gives me say over. One way to put it is that the only restrictions I want on the license would be restrictions on copyright law, not on any end users or distributors. So, just like if copyright law didn't exist:

  • Anyone may use the software for any purpose they choose, and distribute it in any form and for any purpose—if someone could do it without the existence of copyright law, they can do it with my software.

  • However, no one may place any type of restrictions on my software, nor any software the law grants me authority to decide this for, under copyright law, except for that one. Which isn't so much a copyright restriction so much as a restriction on copyright, because it doesn't prohibit anything that would be allowed if copyright law didn't exist—the law wouldn't allow the use of force for things like this, much less provide an official means of doing so. This would only exist as a license restriction because, ironically, it's the only way to ensure real license restrictions don't become a thing.

  • An important distinction is that this only applies to legal restrictions, ones that rely on force. Although I strongly dislike DRM, for instance, I still want to ensure the freedom to redistribute the work in any form, including encumbered by DRM. Again, that would be possible and permissible even if it wasn't for copyright law, so it's okay here too. However, if that's what you want, it's on you to make it strong, because if someone manages to crack it, it's entirely your problem; you won't be able to sue anyone for distributing cracked copies, nor take advantage of anti-circumvention laws. Similarly, software released without source code can be freely reverse-engineered and shared in recreated source code form, if anyone desires to do so.

tl;dr: I don't like copyright law. I want to use a license that allows maximum freedom, except freedom to enforce copyright, same as if copyright didn't exist. Basically, you can do anything you want, but so can anyone else, so you're on your own if you don't want them to.

The license applies to whatever I can make it apply to, and the only way to violate it is if you initiate legal processes.

Is there a license like this or would I need to find a lawyer to write a custom one? (I wonder if the EFF or someone would do that pro bono.)

  • I think CC BY-SA comes close, but probably won't work. It is a copyleft license (so you can't shed the freedom to distribute/modify at any point downstream), and, unlike the GPL, does not require the distribution of "corresponding source". However, it is one-way compatible into the GPL, so a downstream modification could come under the GPL. Also, CC licenses are discouraged for software, but it's not clear to me if you'd mind any of the associated "problems", since your intent is significantly different from most in the FLOSS community. See opensource.stackexchange.com/q/6016/50 – apsillers Sep 24 at 1:45
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    I think this is (at its core) a great question, but the philosophical lead-in buries the question a bit. Perhaps you could add a question to the top ("Is there a license that will require my work and its derivatives to be distributed as if copyright did not exist? Once a recipient has a copy, they can do anything they like with it, but so can any further recipient.") I doubt the exact philosophy is relevant to answering the question -- I wonder if "I am opposed to copyright law in general," would be sufficient background? You could link to an article about libertarian opposition to copyright. – apsillers Sep 24 at 2:21
  • @apsillers: I was thinking that, which was why I mentioned at the beginning that there's a tl;dr at the end, where I summarized the important part. Isn't that enough? Or should I move that part to the top instead? A lot of it is just providing explanation of what I mean. About CC, I don't want the attribution requirement anyway, but what are the problems it typically has for software? – flarn2006 Sep 24 at 2:35
  • How do you intend to stop person A from bringing charges against person B without aggression or force of any kind? – curiousdannii Sep 24 at 4:55
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    It sounds like you want to create a license similar to the GPL, but instead of obligating redistributors to provide source code, you could obligate them to provide at least the binaries (and optionally the source code), as well as obligate them to pass on the same rights to the people they redistribute to. It might be possible to create such a license, but it would definitely not be open source in any definition, so therefore off topic here. – Brandin Sep 24 at 5:48

Anyone may use the software for any purpose they choose ... However, no one may place any type of restrictions on my software

Your basic problem is that these are self-contradictory aims. In the context of modern copyright law, the receipt of freedoms doesn't automatically require you to extend them to others. If you don't want to allow people to take your work and use it in a way that denies freedom to others, you will have to actively deny them that ability. The GNU GPL understands that, and is honest about it in the preamble:

To protect your rights, we need to make restrictions that forbid anyone to deny you these rights or to ask you to surrender the rights.

You have a similar problem with DRM and anti-circumvention laws. You may forbid others to lock up your work with DRM; but if you let them do it, you cannot absolve everyone else from their nations' anti-circumvention laws, even with respect to cracking open DRM'ed content that includes your work. Law doesn't function like that, currently.

So until the international copyright regime is changed, you can either give people maximum freedom with respect to your work, which will include the freedom not to so empower others (permissive licence), or you can give them freedom which is circumscribed so they cannot use your work in a manner that doesn't pass on that freedom (copyleft licence).

My advice is to release your work under either GPL or CC0, and tell people why you have done so. Write and speak on why you think copyright is harmful. Lobby your national government and its representatives to amend what WIPO does, and to update the controlling international conventions on copyright. Join and support organisations whose aims seem compatible with yours. It is not likely you will succeed in your aims, but it's possible: once upon a time, Richard Stallman was just a young man hacking Lisp at the MIT AI lab; then he wrote the GNU GPL, released a lot of code under it, and many good things happened. Every movement must start somewhere, but you have to move to have any chance of starting one. Getting too hung up on your choice of licence at this point will guarantee that you achieve nothing - not even code release.

(I agree with MadHatter's answer, but there's a part left unaddressed in his answer)

You say: "Essentially, I'd want my license to work as if copyright didn't exist. A license that permits everything except legal action of any kind, even on derivative works"

Here's the problem: copyright does exist, and it explicitly has the notion of derived works with multiple copyright owners. You're trying to impose a restriction on those co-owners. It's not impossible in the general case, but here's the problem with that: you gave up the very tool (legal action) which is essential for your purpose.

Not all is lost, however. Open Source is a pre-Internet invention. You don't need to put complicated restrictions on user A distributing to user B. Just ban redistribution outright, but put the source on the 'net and make a direct license offer from you to the whole world, for every purpose (use, modification, study) except redistribution. Redistribution rights are unnecessary when everyone can download the code directly from you.

Note that this fails the "Island" test in common FOSS definitions, which explicitly tests for an unencumbered right to redistribute.

  • "Redistribution rights are unnecessary when everyone can download the code directly from you.". Sorry but no. people, organisations and websites come and go. Redistribution rights are what let us build great systems out of many individual peices from many authors without our users having to worry about some random authors website suddenly disappearing. – Peter Green Sep 26 at 14:45
  • Another problem is that forbidding redistribution also means forbidding redistribution of modified versions. With software under a Free/Open Source license, I can modify as I like and redistribute. – David Thornley Sep 28 at 17:26

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