Shouldn't digital preservation tools be released under the GNU General Public License?

Shouldn’t digital preservation tools be released under the GNU General Public License?

For me, this is a first foray into understanding software licensing…

Licensing bores me. If I’ve written code and it is somewhere out there in public view and I haven’t licensed it, you can take it from me that you can pretty much do what you want with it – but please try to be fair in your attribution.

I’ve met the people who are most likely to have an aneurysm over whether a piece of software is licensed correctly for their own use and I’m not going to lose sleep over them, and as for passive aggressive open source developers who complain: “Oh, look, it’s another github/bitbucket project without an open source license. That means, friends, it is not to be used…” – write an email to the developer, ask them for their terms and to update their source code – it’s not that difficult! (N.B: The irony of my approach in the last two sentences is not lost on me.)

Yep. This stuff bores me. I write this with two licenses in my GitHub repositories – Beerware and zlib – and that probably says more about ego (or low self-esteem!) than anything. More accurately, I’m quite aware that I simply haven’t written anything particularly innovative or useful that warrants more complicated licensing documentation.

The digital preservation community, however, might have! And that’s the crux of my question.

Shouldn’t digital preservation tools be released under the GNU General Public License?

In researching the license used by a tool, similar in nature to the one I am currently working on, I notice that it is licensed under the GNU Lesser General Public License – LGPL. I have no qualms about that. I simply noticed the GNU’s link: ‘Why you shouldn’t use the Lesser GPL for your next library‘.

If you’re not familiar with the text, you should take a look. The GNU make some interesting arguments:

If we amass a collection of powerful GPL-covered libraries that have no parallel available to proprietary software, they will provide a range of useful modules to serve as building blocks in new free programs. This will be a significant advantage for further free software development, and some projects will decide to make software free in order to use these libraries. University projects can easily be influenced; nowadays, as companies begin to consider making software free, even some commercial projects can be influenced in this way.


“We free software developers should support one another. By releasing libraries that are limited to free software only, we can help each other’s free software packages outdo the proprietary alternatives. The whole free software movement will have more popularity, because free software as a whole will stack up better against the competition.”

Given that the tools we will write in our field will nearly almost always be unique and have an edge over proprietary alternatives it leads me to ask: Shouldn’t we release all of our tools to be used only in free software?

The benefits seem clear:

  • GPL digital preservation software could only be used in free digital preservation systems. 
  • Current, free digital preservation solutions would be given a competitive advantage.
  • New systems may appear – creating more competition and therefore innovation.
  • It would give all institutions using free systems the opportunity to use the most advanced and up-to-date tools. 
  • Greater breadth of contributions to digital archive software across key sectors: public, private, research and education.
  • The wheel is not reinvented to seek a way around license limitations.
  • Tools could be evaluated, improved and accepted quicker by a larger user base.
  • A true, free, digital preservation software community could arise – putting the discussion of tools and approaches on a completely level playing field.

After all, archives should be open and democratic – why not the software?

Perhaps more relaxed licenses are required to wrap institutionally built tools because too many organizations are supported by, and bound to, proprietary products that enable them to do their work?

It is interesting to think what the digital preservation landscape might look like in a few years if developers unanimously adopted a GPL-style approach. But these are just some foetal thoughts in my first proper attempt at understanding software licensing. The GNU model might not be appropriate at all. I’m not sure…

What license should we be releasing open source digital preservation tools under?

Addendum: I really do like CC-BY-SA but it’s not considered suitable for licensing software. I think it’s a good middle ground that at the very least sees code improvements fed back into the open source community. Does anyone want to take up the challenge of creating a digital preservation version that applies to software?