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Introducing Desktop Licensing


Hi, I’m Scott Shawcroft a Creative Commons technical intern and a student at the University of Washington. I’d like to tell you about my project but will start with a bit of a preface. Sorry its long, I’m excited. I’ve been a fan of Creative Commons for a few years now. I watched the original Get Creative video in awe. A few months earlier I discovered GNU/Linux. Having a free (in both senses in my mind) operating system at my disposal felt immensely empowering. The collaboration of people around the world enabled by the Internet. Wow. I was introduced to a new world by broadband internet. (CD isos are huge in dial-up times.) To top my discovery of free software I discovered Free Culture. People collaborating across borders in hopes of expressing ideas in an endless variety of ways. Audio, video, photography, poetry and scientific research all released with ‘some rights reserved’. Again, wow. The web was blossoming with license data, the GNU GPL and others on Sourceforge and Creative Commons licenses on Flickr. The web was going somewhere. The desktop was going… nowhere.

While the web had a way of denoting and acknowledging an author’s intention, the desktop had no such thing. No easy way to say, “This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.” There was no easy way to ask, “How can I use this file? What does the creator allow me to do?” Once off of the web, the files were on their own. Away from all of the comforts of the creator’s website in the big mess of files we call a desktop computer. When would this all change? When will a license be as ubiquitous as a last modified date?

Both the original Get Creative video and in the newer Wanna Work Together video emphasize the fact that upon the fixation of an idea in a tangible form its author gains a bundle of exclusive rights formally known as copyright. Each and every file on each and every computer created by someone has rights associated with it. Upon creation of those files, the user has a copyright for each one. To counter this automatic copyright, a desktop-centric fundamental way to release those given rights is needed.

I’m happy to announce that this is about to change. With great thanks to Jason Kivlighn, Jon Phillips, Nathan Yergler and every license author I’d like to point you to liblicense, the first small and shaky step towards universal license tracking on the desktop. What we’ve created is a library to assist in tracking and tagging file’s licenses. Our intention is not to create the means for rights restriction but to ease the process of informing users about the rights granted by the author of a particular file. We’re not in the restriction business. We’re in the information business.

However, this is a very small step and there are many more steps to go. Liblicense is in need of much love. Kind of like the teenage years; it still has some things to get sorted out before it matures. Also, its a bit lonely. There are many cool companions to it which have yet to be written. As I wrote earlier, we’re planning on venturing into the world of Sugar for the One Laptop Per Child project. That still leaves much unexplored. What about applications? Sure, the desktop will know about licenses. But what about music players, feed readers, desktop publishers and text editors? All of those applications are in the business of ideas. Shouldn’t they display the rights to the information they are dealing with? Imagine finding a song you love using Amarok and finding out you can share it with your friends. Or imagine finding a brilliant poem on a blog through Liferea you can base a video or song off of. Cool. I’m excited.

One last thing, liblicense is, well, kind of skinny. To continue the teenage analogy you are probably sick of, liblicense is the skinny kid who could use some bulking up. While Jason (my esteemed colleague, former roommate and great friend) and I are trying our best to get liblicense to bulk up, we could use your help. We’d like liblicense to support embedding license information into all of the file types known to man. I’m serious. All applications and even the kernel of the operating system should have license information embedded in them. While some formats have semi-standard ( and I say semi due to the lack of application of said standard ) methods for embedding license, others just plain don’t. Those issues need to get resolved before we can support every file format known to man. I know what you are thinking, “It can’t be done. He’s intentionally exaggerating.” Well, you are wrong. Again, I’m serious. Every file format can be supported, its just an issue of how. And an issue of how can be solved. We just need your help. The power of collaboration knows no bounds.

For more information about liblicense visit the project page at If you are running Linux (other platforms planned) and would like to try it get it here. If you would like to help develop liblicense or talk with/get help from the developers join us on or the mailing list Thanks.

Posted 31 July 2007