The NZGOAL (New Zealand Government Open Access and Licensing) framework officially advises the public service in New Zealand to release publicly-funded works under a CreativeCommons license. In NZGOAL-SE (Software Extension), which came a few years later, the public service is encouraged to use and release software under free code licenses. Getting the NZGOAL frameworks approved by an extreme right-wing National government was an amazing achievement.

When any work is created at public expense, its public service maintainers ought to be allowed improve it by incorporating any fixes or additions made in derivative versions, especially commercial derivatives. So when NZGOAL was being drafted, I argued that the appropriate default license for it to recommend would be CC BY-SA (Attribution-ShareAlike). For the same reason, during the pioneering NZGOAL-SE consultation process, conducted using Loomio and GitHub, I argued for the GNU GPL (General Public License) as the default license recommendation. As did my friend Dave Lane, the Open Source Technologist at the OERu (Open Educational Resources Universitas) and long-time President of NZOSS (NZ Open Source Society).

Sadly, and perhaps because of the political circumstances, the default suggested in NZGOAL was CC BY (Attribution). This laissez-faire license means, for example, that map companies can sell corrected maps based on the publicly-funded NZ map data shared under CC BY by LINZ (Land Information New Zealand), but LINZ would need to ask permission to incorporate those map corrections back into the public dataset.

This is still a big improvement on the kinds of privatization that might otherwise have happened. For example, the CC BY license allows the LINZ map data to be used in the Open Street Map. Without NZGOAL, that map data could have been spun off into an SOE (State-Owned Enterprise) to “open” it to the private sector, and made available only to purchasers of proprietary, commercial licenses. Worst-case scenario, the copyright on that public map data could have been sold into private ownership, a fate that has befallen many publicly-funded commons in Aotearoa since the 1980s, including the Government Printing Office.

But although the use of CC BY was a good start, I’d still like to see the default changed to CC BY-SA if there is a Version 3.0 of NZGOAL. Failing that, I’d like to see it recommended side-by-side with CC BY, so that public agencies choosing CC BY-SA are more likely to consider the pros and cons of a ShareAlike license for the data they steward, while still following the default advice in NZGOAL.

The situation in the Software Edition of NZGOAL is somewhat better. Public service agencies are advised to license any modifications to an existing codebase under the license the upstream codebase uses, even when they’re not legally obliged to (eg by a copyleft license). When licensing new software, they’re advised to use either the laissez-faire license that the OSI (Open Source Initiative) calls the “MIT“, or the GPL (version 3 or later). They’re also invited to consider AGPL for server software, or LGPL for software libraries, as appropriate.

While I’m glad that “MIT” did not end up being the sole recommended license, as suggested in the original draft, I don’t see why we ought to allow companies to build proprietary software on top of publicly-funded free code at all. Why not oblige them to make their source code available to their users, and allow their fixes and addition to be incorporated back into the upstream versions maintained by public service agencies or open source communities?

One argument raised for recommending a laissez-faire license as the default was that this would be equivalent to the CC BY recommendation in NZGOAL itself. But as I pointed out  during the consultation process, they’re not really equivalent. The laissez-faire licenses lack the strong “attribution” requirement that is fundamental to CC BY, obliging redistributors of a work to give credit to the original creators. All they require is that a copy of the copyright statement and the license are included when the code is published, which end users might never see.

If there is a revision of NZGOAL-SE, I’d really like to see a copyleft license like GPL become the default recommendation, with a laissez-faire license downgraded to an alternative to be considered along with AGPL or LGPL for special circumstances. In either case, I’d like to see Apache 2.0 replace “MIT” as the recommended laissez-faire license. NGGOAL-SE quite rightly points out that NZ patent law doesn’t recognize software patents, and that public service agencies are not patent trolls anyway. But that doesn’t stop outside contributors to publicly-funded free code, licensed under the “MIT” license, from enforcing software patents on anyone using that code in other jurisdictions. Apache 2.0 explicitly prevents this.

In summary, it was an honour and a privilege to be part of the efforts by CreativeCommons Aotearoa/ NZ (now Tohatoha) and NZOSS to help bring NZGOAL and NZGOAL-SE into existence, and to contribute to the consultations on them. But now that we have a new, more public-spirited government, it’s time to start campaigning for revised versions that maximize public access not only to publicly-funded works, but also their derivatives.

Filed January 14th, 2019 under free culture

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