Why Your Next Project Should Be Public Domain

By Zach Oakes on July 10th, 2013

I always dedicate my free software to the public domain, and you should too. You may think that you are effectively doing that by using MIT, 2-clause BSD, Apache, or Eclipse, but you would be wrong. All of these licenses require interested parties to include a copy of their legalese anywhere the code is used. While not a particularly onerous requirement, many people (myself included) routinely violate it. Authors, thankfully, hardly ever pursue the issue, so why do they bother imposing the requirement?

The more risk averse will caution against my suggestion, arguing that the public domain in the U.S. is too much of a legal gray area, and that permissive licenses are more legally "secure". Yet, until 1978, one didn't even need to engage in the preposterous act of explicitly releasing one's work to the public domain; it was the default! Am I now being told that the grasp of copyright law has tightened so much that even an explicit renunciation is not enough to escape it?

The issue has been debated, and I often find people concluding that while it is still legally possible to dedicate one's work to the public domain, the small increase in risk isn't worth it. This is where I must remove my pragmatic software developer hat and replace it with nothing but the scalp I was born with: If the government under which I live has degraded the public domain this much, the relevant laws are not legitimate and I don't care to follow them.

I completely understand those who find my internet bravado unconvincing. If I wasn't a single, childless, financially-poor man in his twenties, I might be more risk averse as well. I do not regard the LICENSE.txt in your Github project as a serious abrogation of ethics. It inspires more of a shallow sigh, like the kind you'd exhale if your male friend told you he cautiously avoids going to the park alone with his kid. I understand why you think that way, but it sucks that you think that way.

Already, my generation is young enough to not know of a time when we didn't receive an automatic, unsolicited title to every creative thought we bothered to share. In my lifetime, I expect the copyright cancer to complete its metastasis. I expect that old-fashioned physical property rights will decline by the same magnitude. When I reach my deathbed and find myself ready to will that old-fashioned property to my unlikely-to-exist children, I'll be sure that document has a nice big public domain dedication at the bottom.