At NuCypher, we develop privacy tools and protocols for the next generation of the web. As we develop these tools, the strategy for how we want to license our code is a critical discussion. These are a few points on why I fought for us to adopt the GNU Affero General Public License (AGPLv3):
1. The decentralization movement has always been about liberation.
We all came here for different reasons. Some of us see decentralization as a vehicle to seize our rights to privacy. Some of us see it as a method of liberating money; thus, a tool for disrupting the rich and powerful.
Ultimately, we all came here because of one truth — liberation. The ability to gain the right to choose how we share our data, who we transact with, or what we spend money on. It can even be viewed as the liberation of trust. Why trust powerful, centralized institutions when we can remove trust from the equation? There are many problems to be solved before this vision is attainable, but this is the common value that drives us.
This desire for liberation extends deeply into our movement. It’s our responsibility as early adopters and builders to extend the same grace of liberation, that we give ourselves, to our software. The GPL liberates our software from proprietary oppression.
2. “Open Source” is not enough for early-builders.
In our movement, the freedom to see and modify code we use is, at best, a bare-minimum. You get no points for doing the obvious — ensuring that we, the users, don’t have to trust your code running on our machines! We must have much more strict standards for projects that participate in our movement.
Apache and other permissive licenses, as great as they are, are simply not enough for us as the early-builders of the decentralized ecosystem. At HOPE 12 I sat in a panel with Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation. During this panel, someone asked him a common but great question, “Why should we use the GPL over other open source licenses, like Apache, when they accomplish the same goals?”
Richard’s reply was that open source licenses, like Apache, grant the users their freedom, but they do not enforce that freedom. What this means is that anyone can take contributions and use them to further their own projects without actually giving back to the ecosystem. In short, they can benefit from the work of others without ever giving back. The GPL license is viral and liberates other projects by force. There is no sense in liberating ourselves, and our code, if we’re not willing to protect that liberty!
3. There is a responsibility to the ecosystem and the movement.
As we build trustless, decentralized, and ownerless networks and protocols, we must build software that protects these ideals. Copyleft licenses accomplish this, but permissive licenses do not.
We should not let the traditional institutions that we are fighting to replace benefit from our work without contributing back to our movement, nor should they join our movement without adopting the same vision and ideals.
This is our movement and if we don’t build a strong free foundation, it has the chance of being parasitically co-opted by the very institutions and organizations we seek to disrupt. Early-builders have a responsibility to use licenses that not only grant us our freedoms but protect them as well. To protect our movement, we must ensure that those who adopt our achievements are the same that believe in our success.
I am aiming to build a decentralized future.
A future where trust isn’t granted, earned, or made — it’s antiquated.
As such, I believe that there are some expectations we, the early-builders and adopters, should set for the rest of the ecosystem. I believe that copyleft licenses, like the GPL, help the ecosystem accomplish these goals and enforce the vision we are working so hard to build.