Brussels / 4 & 5 February 2023


The Professional's Guide To Haphazardly Picking Licenses For Standards & Specifications

Practical tips for the reckless licensor

Standards and specifications straddle the space between software and user-manual–style documentation.

This session presents a recent case study of the search for an optimal license for a FOSS specification project. It covers establishing intrinsic goals for the specification itself, documenting interoperability concerns triggered by adjacent standards, and the difficulties posed by adopting or adapting licenses used in other free standards.

Specifications may be descriptive for human readers — like documentation — but may incorporate samples and pseudocode, or snippets that can be quoted within software source files — like a derived software program. For FOSS specifications, striking the ideal balance between permissiveness and fragmentation among implementers poses additional challenges. Though no one-size-fits-all solution exists, this session will compare specification-license strategies and explain how the case-study project resolved its own decision.

The project in question is a specification for OpenType font shaping, but the licensing issues confronted are rather universal. It is a functional specification that attempts to serve as a reference for a variety of software implementations (both FOSS and otherwise) because predictable behavior across vendors is paramount, so there is no one, obvious license to pick for full compatibility. It interacts with prior standards published by other parties, such as Unicode and the multiple owners of OpenType, each of which carries its own license. And it seeks to attract support and buy-in from these outside parties, who may have competing interests.

In addition to the account of the project's search for potential licenses, the session will also look at the paucity of written resources or best-practices discussions dissecting the issues of specification licenses. It will also enumerate and compare the licenses used by other standards-publishers that impact FOSS developers, including the W3C, IEEE, IETF, and Internet Society, and will attempt to categorize the trade-offs made by each of these publishers. It will also discuss how specification licenses differ from other non-software licenses, such as licenses for datasets and general "commons" works.

Attendees will come away with a renewed perspective on the questions facing authors of standards and specifications, as well as with up-to-date knowledge of how various specification publishers have described the rights granted and withheld in their licenses and the terms and conditions placed on their consumers. Discussion is encouraged, to distill some pertinent principles primed for practical processes.

[Although the session relates to fonts and text encoding, no prior experience with font internals is required. Attendees should expect, however, to be shown the occasional UTF-8 or UTF-16 codepoint in the slides and be ready to avert their gaze if they feel unprepared.]


Photo of Nathan Willis Nathan Willis