[wp-docs] Codex license: CC better than GPL?

Alex Günsche ag.ml2008 at zirona.com
Tue Feb 26 22:29:43 GMT 2008

On Tue, 2008-02-26 at 10:56 -0800, Matt Mullenweg wrote:
> Alex Günsche wrote:
> > By the way, you might wonder why I'm proposing this; the reason is that
> > we are currently working on a new German documentation, and the GPL is
> > very bad to handle questions like translatabilty, or compatibility with
> > documentary work in other legislations than the US.

> You allude to several issues, it'd be good to hear specifics of what a 
> GPL license prevents us from doing.

My problem with the GPL for documentary work is basically that most of
the license is about code, and these sections are irrelevant to
documentations and similar work -- you could as well omit them. What
would be left is very vague about the way you can use the licensed work,
because it doesn't talk about ideas and concepts, but *only* about code
(or text, if you will).

In short terms: the GPL protects the literal code, but a translation
contains no literal parts of the original -- only its ideas and
concepts. It is questionable in how far a translation is a derivative
work, and you would have decide it for each piece of work. This is prone
to cause legal confusion. The CC licenses however also protect (to a
certain extent) the idea behind a work, therefore the translations
licensing issue is easier to solve with a CC license. (IMHO, IANAL.)

Short story long:

------ BEGIN veeeeery lengthy argumentation ------

An intellectual work consist of ideas and concepts as well as literal
expression/manifestation of these ideas and concepts. This is what
(software) code and (documentary) text have in commom. But there are
significant differences, and one of them is translation, or, in software
terms, reimplementation.

As for human language works such as a documentation, a translation is
still very close to the original work, because it is usually translated
paragraph by paragraph. But "translating" software takes much more, and
the derivative character of the outcome is very questionable. For
example: Would a Java reimplementation of WordPress be a derivative
work? One might think so, but the final implementation would not at all
look similar to the original work, hence the copyright would not apply
to it, nor would the GPL, because no WordPress code is in the new work.

Of course, software also consists of ideas and concepts to a large
extent, the actual coding is a rather small part of software
development. However, the GPL refers only to the code (or applied to
documentation: the mere text).

A "translation" of code, namely a reimplementation in a different
programming language, is almost a complete redesign, and it's not
self-evident that the result is a derived work. Again, I argue that this
is rather an "inspired" work, and the intellectual property dimension is
a patent-like rather than a copyright-like. Therefore, you will usually
not be able to claim a copyright infringement on a reverse-engineered
and reimplemented application.

This is why the GPL doesn't talk about reimplementations and
"translations" -- they are usually no derivative works. But considering
translations of a documentation, the term "derivative work" is too
vague, because the outcome does in fact not contain any explicit portion
of the original work -- exept the ideas, but these are not necessarily
protected by copyright.

I think that the CC licenses handle this translation issue better,
because they explicitly say that translations are derivative works.

The GPL does not regard translations/reimplementations, which is ok for
software, because a reimplementation is usually no longer a derivate
work, but applied to documentary work, it is not so clear and might
cause legal confusion. 

You could now say, CC also cannot protect ideas beyond copyright. But
this is not true: the CC (here: BY-SA) is a license, and as it grants
certain rights based on a contract, it can demand compliance with almost
arbitrary conditions -- far beyond copyright. Other licenses do the
same, e.g. concerning patents. Only the GPL explicitly doesn't
("Activities other than copying, distribution and modification are not
covered by this License; they are outside its scope."), because of the
aforementioned reasons.

Hope all this is halfway comprehensible; but I think one should get the
general idea.

------ END veeeeery lengthy argumentation ------

So much for the translations and "derivative works" issues, but there
are others, too: What is "file" in a documentation? The entire work, a
chapter, a page? The GPL requires "modified files to carry prominent
notices". I agree that this is not impossible, e.g. with the page
history in a Wiki. But with a flexible CC attribution statement, one it
would be easier to create complex derivates (e.g. a translation of
larger Codex parts).

Another argument pro-CC is that documentary and similar works are
nowadays often CC'd. (Kind of circular reasoning, I know.) Therefore, if
you have to choose between two similar, but incompatible licenses, you
might want to chose the one which is more common in area you work in. 

So, if you want to distribute a GPL'd WordPress package along with a
CC'd documentation, you can do so without problems, as both licenses
allow the "mere aggregation" with works under different licenses. A
documentation can technically not be a derivative work of a piece of
software, and vice versa. (The type of influence is rather that you have
*learnt* from the original work, which is a separate provision of Free
Software, and it doesn't require to adapt the license.)

I admit that this is not so clear in cases where code snippets are
incorporated in the documentation; but in most cases, these are trivial
pieces (which you can treat as a quotation), and they mostly consist not
of the original code, but of usage examples made up by the documentation

However, back on topic, if you aggregate content of the same kind, you
might reach a point where you need to merge them beyond mere
aggregation, and then your licenses must be compatible.

After all, I won't deny that the GPL is an acceptable license for the
Codex. On the other hand, there are serious drawbacks, and I see a
strong argument for CC licensing. Maybe dual-licensing would make sense.

> People seem to be able to translate our GPL code just fine, what's the 
> issues with translating the Codex?

In my opinion, translating software messages is actually a code
contribution. Textual messages are a part of the user interface, hence
the GPL makes sense here. Besides, the translation templates are
definitely a derivative work, they are derived from the source, they
contain parts of the code, and they make no sense without the

> Would also love to have your feedback on the built-in upgrade stuff 
> inside WP 2.5.

I haven't tested it yet, but I saw the code, and it looks very
promising! I'll have a proper test the next days and then flood Trac. ;)

Best regards,

Alex Günsche, Zirona OpenSource-Consulting
Blogs: http://www.zirona.com/ | http://www.regularimpressions.net
*** Want to test the shiny new release of InstantUpgrade? ***

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