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Licensing: Restricting the ability to prevent others exercising their rights

There is great potential in using open source and free software licensing to support and encourage the ethical use of technology — and indeed to deter its use in violating human rights and provide some legal mechanisms to challenge this when it happens.

But it’s also an extremely complex and difficult issue, as there are always a great number of implications, and they’re not always easy to anticipate.

This is an area I watch with keen interest, and I was interested to read Matthew Garrett posing some interesting questions around how a clause relating to taking away another’s ability to exercise their rights under the licence might work. The idea is taking the moral goal of preventing harm being done to others by means of the software and expressing that goal in terms of prohibiting actions that would prevent others from exercising their rights under the same licence.

This work may not be used in any way that impairs any individual’s ability to exercise the permissions granted by this license, whether or not they have received a copy of the covered work

To be clear, I don’t think this is a good license – it has a bunch of unfortunate consequences like it being impossible to use covered code in self-defence if doing so would impair your attacker’s ability to use the software. I’m not advocating this as a solution to anything. But I am interested in seeing whether the perception of the argument changes when we refocus it on user freedom as opposed to an independent ethical goal.

Matthew Garrett

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