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Changing the copyright license for Living Standards

by Anne van Kesteren in WHATWG

The recent changes to the WHATWG are designed to help the web-standards development community work together across the broadest possible spectrum of developers, implementers, and end-users. As part of this change, we decided to move our standards from being licensed under the CC0 public domain dedication to the CC BY license.

This decision was not made lightly. We valued the alignment of CC0 with the original public domain dedication of the WWW project; the ease with which it allows remixing and refactoring of standards; and the way in which it allows copying of snippets or examples into software that implements or uses the standards.

While CC0 is beneficial in some ways, it also has some disadvantages. The lack of an attribution requirement may seem convenient, but it can also cause confusion in the standards community. For example, there are derivative specifications ("forks") that are not prominently identified as copies of WHATWG standards. Such unattributed forks create confusion both about the origin of the standard and about any applicable intellectual property rights (IPR) commitments. Use of the CC BY license makes it easier for implementers to trace what they are implementing back to the original source and its accompanying IPR commitments.

Additionally, CC0 is not approved by the Open Source Initiative. Although their reasoning is not very applicable in the context of the WHATWG, which has its own system for patent grants, this lack of approval from a prominent organization involved in defining "open source" can discourage participation.

Moving to CC BY addresses these disadvantages and also allows for a reduction in license proliferation. We were able to replace the custom license of the HTML Standard, which was a source of some confusion, with CC BY. CC BY still allows modification and redistribution, but adds on the relatively modest burden of attribution. We believe that, on balance, this change is the best path forward for the community.

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