Question: Question: What is the Open Source Community's Take the MIT License?

nshapiro is asking a question about legal
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by nshapiro | September 02, 2016 11:15 | #13411

What I want to do or know

Is the MIT Open License fundamentally different than CC licences that do not claim to be copyrights? Is it essentially the same as Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License?

Background story

I'm working with a collaborator who is trying to get their open licences in order and one of their collaborators at MIT was interested in using the MIT license and I wanted to see if there would be any reasons for encouraging them to use a CC license before that license is applied at the end of September.


Nick, I think it's a little misleading to say that a Creative Commons license does not claim to be a copyright. Typically, when you produce a new creative work (in the US and other places), it is automatically copyrighted. If someone uses it without your permission, you may have some legal recourse.

If you assign a Creative Commons license to your work, you are granting permission to anyone to use it in certain ways, but you still have legal copyright protection for your work. The CC license allows others to benefit from it in particular ways, but not in all ways. The power of the CC licenses is their explicit statements of exactly what others may and may not do with your work. Some of the CC licenses surrender most of the potential benefits you could gain from your copyright, but others do not. If someone oversteps the limits of the license you have granted, you have legal recourse because of the copyright protection of your work.

An odd thing about this is that you can pay to register a copyright and then have additional protection, e.g., I think registration allows you to recover your legal costs if you sue, whereas you can sue only for damages if you don't register. So when you grant a CC license, you should also pay to register your copyright. If you don't, and a big corporation uses your work improperly (e.g., commercially or without attribution) you probably will not be able to afford to do anything about it.

The MIT license seems to apply only to software, and seems to be very similar to the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.


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Thanks, Chris! This is very very helpful.

I might add some of this information to the licenses wiki to clarify just how these processes work. Thanks again!


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The MIT license is a permissive open source license, and is not copyleft -- meaning that, unlike the GPL or CC-BY-SA (sharealike), derivative works needn't follow the same license. It's not "infectious" -- to use the negative term.

In this respect it's more like CC-BY -- attribution only. Free and open source licenses can be divided into two broad categories based on whether they're copyleft or not, and there's a pretty big cultural difference between the two.

Copyleft licenses tend to make a kind of moral claim that people who benefit should "pitch in" and add to the work in an open way -- these are generally favored by the "free software" movement. Permissive licenses are hands-off, and more associated with the "open source" movement, some of whom see it as more "business friendly". A brief history (at a cultural level) can be found in this article, one of my favorites:

This is great! Thanks! I did think there was a difference but I wasn't sure what it was. thanks for pinpointing it and then situating it in longer debates. Lookin forward to reading that article!

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In a nutshell, permissive open source licenses mean someone can take what's been committed to the commons and build a closed branch off of it. This kind of license, which includes the MIT license, means someone can come along and make improvements to your open source design, and NOT share them back to the commons. This includes not sharing them back to you!

I'm guessing you're working on some hardware. Have you read the Cern OHL?

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Super helpful! Thank you! This aspect is actually software, and yes I've read and am advocating for the Cern Licence over here :) Thank you Liz!

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This article has some helpful talking points about how applying licenses alone won't guarantee a thriving / collaborative project, and points out how cultural norms can be more a more successful way to span national (legal) borders:

so nice to see an expert saying: "hey! what i have expertise in is not as helpful as other approaches" thanks liz!

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