Do No Harm License Harms Open Source

September 12, 2018 § Leave a comment

HarmI was recently made aware of the Do No Harm software license, which according to its authors is, “a license for developers who write open source code to make the world a better place.” The license is based on the BSD 3-clause license, but with specific exclusions for using the licensed code to promote or profit from:

  • violence, hate and division,
  • environmental destruction,
  • abuse of human rights,
  • the destruction of people’s physical and mental health

Apparently a discussion among the authors broke out on whether or not the label “open source software can be used in conjunction with this license.”

The “Do No Harm” license should not be labeled as an open source license (which to be fair, it does not appear to be referenced as such in the license text), and the software distributed with such a license should not be labeled as, “open source software”, although I fear some future project distributed under the “Do No Harm” license will identify itself as an “open source software project”.

(One interesting note, we had a similar issue with a license written by Qabel).

Specific to the question, “whether the term open source software can be used in conjunction with this license,” it should not.

The Do No Harm license conflicts with several criteria of the Open Source Definition (OSD), specifically, Criteria 5, “No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups”, and Criteria 6, “No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor”. Should the license be submitted to the OSI’s License Review Process, I strongly believe, it would be rejected. Again, to be fair, the authors of the license do not appear to be touting the license as an open source license, and I see no reference to open source in the actual text/preamble of the license.

However, while not part of the license, the language of the README distributed with the license, will unfortunately lead to ambiguity around the label “open source”, and
confusion over the open source ethos. “Open source” is a term of art, and as such has a precise, specialized meaning recognized internationally within industry, governments, etc.

Today, enterprises can assume that any open source license – whether it’s permissive, reciprocal or somewhere in between – adheres to these ten principles. What if, however, that definition became blurry? Or what if well understood and vetted open source licenses began to be modified by riders with unclear implications? Either development would be enormously problematic for open source broadly. – Stephen O’Grady, “Tragedy of the Commons“, RedMonk

The README highlights “Do No Harm” is a modification of the BSD license, “for developers who write open source code to make the world a better place.” If the license is for open source developers, who write open source code, it would be understandable that some will assume the “Do No Harm” license is for open source software… after all it is, “a license for developers who write open source code”. Folks would never assume, “A [ball] for [baseball players] who [play baseball] to make the world a better place,” would be a tennis ball.

Actually this sentence should read, “A license for developers who write code to make the world a better place.”

  • First, why is there an expectation/desire that only those who have created or contributed to open source software projects can contribute to projects “that make the world a better place?” Will such “Do No Harm” licensed projects refuse participation from developers/organizations who work on “proprietary” software?
    Limiting the description to open source developers limits the pool of possible collaborators.
  • Secondly, the README language suggests (falsely) a dependency or requirement between open source software development and development for “Do No Harm” licensed projects. Will “Do No Harm” licensed projects refuse code not distributed with an OSI approved license? What about works licensed under the Qabel license referenced above, or the “Fair Source” license, or the “Beerware” license, or even other “Do No Harm” licenses? None of these are open source licenses. Limiting the description to “open source code” limits the amount of code that could be included, and if the authors believe there are just reasons to modify OSI Approved Open Source Licenses, for their cause, others must be considered too, right? Imagine the legal hell of resolving compatibility and continuity.

“Open source developers” who support the Open Source Definition, value the open ethos, and understand the value proposition of software freedom, would *not* want to contribute to software projects under such a restrictive licenses as “Do No Harm”.

In order to effectively enforce the “Do No Harm” license, the copyright holder would need to review and approve every potential user of their code before giving a copy away (to use, modify, redistribute)—much like proprietary software developers do, although their review is limited to the check clearing. This would eliminate one of the key benefits of open source, what OSI President Simon Phipps described as, “granting permission in advance“. Not giving permission first would stymie contributions and innovation as the pace of development would be dependent on the ability of the copyright holders to review/approve new adopters in a consistent and timely manner.

If the copyright holder does not “approve use before use” then what risks and liabilities emerge to potential adopters if the licensor alone gets to determine if the licensee “promotes or profits from violence, hate and division, environmental destruction, abuse of human rights, the destruction of people’s physical and mental health?”

(One person’s “abuse of human rights” is another’s human right”. I suggest watching this short clip featuring Bruce Perens explaining the rationale behind the Open Source Definition.)

Why would any organization subject itself to a lawsuit from a one-off group that believes building a road is “environmental destruction”, or a government who see’s protesting as “violence”? Can the authors point to accepted legal definitions for any of their included restrictions (e.g. violence vs. civil unrest).

The result of restricted access and unclear requirements like those found in the “Do No Harm” license, is harmful, limiting or even stopping the adoption and use of such licensed software, and thus collaboration and contribution—the opposite of what I suspect the authors of “Do No Harm” actually desire of, and benefit through, open source software projects.


Image Credit: “Harm.png” by Patrick Masson, 2018, CC BY-SA 3.0, is a  derivative of “Hippocrates pushkin02.jpg” by Shakko, 2008, CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons.

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