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I have often heard that I should not use the Unlicense because of issues regarding putting things into the public domain. However, I do not understand why this would be an issue for the Unlicense. The Unlicense attempts to put whatever is being unlicensed into the public domain, and if that works, awesome! However, the author of the Unlicense understands that putting something into the public domain is not so simple, it may even be impossible, and therefore the Unlicense contains a backup clause (the 2nd paragraph) which clearly states that everyone is free to do whatever they want with the Unlicensed software. The Unlicense even includes a disclaimer containing the usual "this software is provided as-is blah blah" legalese.

Is the Unlicense bad because it is short and doesn't define who the "unlicensor", the "unlicensee" and Santa Claus is? If yes, then what about the MIT/BSD-style licenses? They are generally considered to be valid, so why isn't the Unlicense? Is the opposition to public domain waivers with permissive license backup clauses, such as the Unlicense, and even the Creative Commons CC0, just FUD or are there really major legal issues with them?

Here is the full text of the Unlicense:

This is free and unencumbered software released into the public domain.

Anyone is free to copy, modify, publish, use, compile, sell, or distribute this software, either in source code form or as a compiled binary, for any purpose, commercial or non-commercial, and by any means.

In jurisdictions that recognize copyright laws, the author or authors of this software dedicate any and all copyright interest in the software to the public domain. We make this dedication for the benefit of the public at large and to the detriment of our heirs and successors. We intend this dedication to be an overt act of relinquishment in perpetuity of all present and future rights to this software under copyright law.

THE SOFTWARE IS PROVIDED "AS IS", WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO THE WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE AND NONINFRINGEMENT. IN NO EVENT SHALL THE AUTHORS BE LIABLE FOR ANY CLAIM, DAMAGES OR OTHER LIABILITY, WHETHER IN AN ACTION OF CONTRACT, TORT OR OTHERWISE, ARISING FROM, OUT OF OR IN CONNECTION WITH THE SOFTWARE OR THE USE OR OTHER DEALINGS IN THE SOFTWARE.

For more information, please refer to http://unlicense.org/

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Can you link to someone that is discussing the issues that you're concerned about? –  Justin Cave May 3 '12 at 15:47
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There is nothing wrong with this question. It's common knowledge that the concept of public domain doesn't exist in all areas, and this is a valid question about if this particular license is suitable and valid for software projects. –  Thomas Owens May 3 '12 at 15:55
    
This question appears to be off-topic because it is about a license issue. –  Jim G. Jul 8 at 1:08
    
@JimG. Software licensing is a valid topic for this site. –  cgt Jul 9 at 1:30

1 Answer 1

up vote 15 down vote accepted

(Disclaimer: IANAL - for reliable advice on legal issues, ask a lawyer)

See here and here, including comments, for some of the immediate issues with the license. My interpretation:

  • It's not global. It doesn't make sense outside of a commonwealth ecosystem, is explicitly illegal in some places (Germany), and of unclear legality in others (Australia)
  • It's inconsistent. Some of the warranty terms cannot, logically, co-exist, given the current legal ecosystem, as written, with the licensing terms.
  • It's applicability is unpredictable The license is short, clearly expressing intent, at the cost of not carefully addressing common license, copy-right and warranty issues. It leaves a lot of leeway interpretation - meaning that, in the US, it will take a few trials before you can reliably know when the license is applicable, and how.

Personally, I think of the license as having been written in human-readable pseudo-code, without having been properly compiled yet to a given set of legal systems.

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Thank you for the answer. Do you know anything about the legal validity of the CC0? –  cgt May 3 '12 at 17:01
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It looks like CC0 has done a much better job at the "compilation", including making sure the license degrades gracefully in systems where it's not possible to legally apply parts of it. I'm not a lawyer - but it looks like there's a body of work discussing the finer points of where the CC0 applies and where it doesn't, meaning it's written well enough for the legal system to take seriously. So I'd say, reliable, but no guarantee it works as written everywhere. –  blueberryfields May 3 '12 at 17:15
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(which might be as good as it gets to these types of licenses) –  blueberryfields May 3 '12 at 17:16
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@blueberryfields I'm curious, why the Unlicense is illegal in Germany? I couldn't find it on Google... –  Metalcoder Oct 2 '13 at 13:57
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This means that, for example, if you unlicence a piece of software, in Germany, technically, your inheritors still might own some of the relevant rights, and might be able to start going after people for money, or with cease and desist letters, after you've passed away. Or you can change your mind, and do this. Meaning that unlicensing your software makes it potentially dangerous for german companies to use –  blueberryfields Oct 2 '13 at 15:15

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