License Or It Doesn't Exist

The phrase “pics or it didn’t happen” is used often on teh Interwebs as an alternative to Wikipedia’s “citation needed”, pointing out a claim that needs evidence.

I’d like to propose another meme in the same vein: “license or it doesn’t exist”.

There are countless repositories on GitHub and elsewhere that lack a clear license for their contents. Putting a license on a body of open source code is usually a matter of a LICENSE file and appropriate file headers, so it’s not a ton of work. When I find self-promoted projects that lack such licenses, I try to convince their developers to properly license the work. Otherwise, technically, we have no rights to use their published code.

But this isn’t purely a question of code.

Spiderfly Studios has published a pair of icon fonts, designed for Android developers, to help avoid the proliferation of icons spread across N densities. I’m sure the fonts are lovely. However:

  • Font files aren’t human-readable (like, say, most Java source code), and so if there is licensing data baked into them, it is not obvious what that license is

  • The fonts are distributed in a ZIP archive that contains no obvious licensing information

  • The Web page containing the link to the ZIP archive has no specific license for this material

  • That Web page does have “Copyright © 2012 Spiderfly Studios. All Rights Reserved” in a footer

Fonts are messy from a licensing standpoint in the first place (e.g., what would it mean to have a font licensed under the GPL?). Not having clearly spelled-out rules for where and how we can use these fonts means that nobody should be using them — the “All Rights Reserved” statement has to be presumed to emcompass the ZIP archive.

This hardly seems like it is what Spiderfly Studios wants, given that they went to the trouble of creating the fonts, the ZIP archive, and the Web page pointing to them.

At least in the United States, all works created since 1976 are automatically copyrighted by their authors, with very few exceptions. Hence, saying “well, I did not include a copyright notice, so it’s free for all” is insufficient evidence for all jurisdictions.

If you want reuse, clearly license the terms for that reuse. Otherwise, the material may as well not exist.

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