Thoughts on the Hippocratic License

For the last couple of years I’ve been putting the Hippocratic License on my personal projects, which basically says, “You’re free to use this software as long as you don’t violate human rights treaties.” Once in a while I get pushback: people say that it’s provocative, unenforceable, redundant (because most countries have signed those treaties), or that if you put restrictions on use then the software isn’t really “open”. (Sometimes they say these things quite forcefully.) So in reverse order:

  1. Licenses like the GPL put restrictions or conditions on use too—they just pick ones that didn’t make a certain breed of hacker in the 1980s and early 1990s uncomfortable arguing about. (I know—I was one of them.)
  2. As for redundant, sometimes I imagine how companies that depend on open software would react if a major project adopted the Hippocratic License and they had to affirm publicly that they weren’t violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Those are pleasant daydreams…
  3. Unenforceable? Laws banning discrimination in hiring were also regarded as unenforceable (“What, you’re going to have someone from the government sit in on every job interview?”), but their existence forces potential violators to think twice.
  4. Finally, yes, choosing the Hippocratic License is provocative, but so was choosing any open license when I was younger. I’m old enough to remember when the things taken for granted by most of the people reading this post were considered unrealistic. Python and JavaScript as mainstream languages? Speaker lineups at tech conferences that aren’t 100% male? Pffft—never gonna happen, dude. (Yes, I’m also old enough to remember when people unironically called each other “dude”.)

Everyone thinks the world they first encounter is normal. Everyone forgets the people before them had to build that “normal”. So don’t tell me the Hippocratic License isn’t a real license just because GitHub doesn’t offer it as an option when you set up a new repo. And please don’t tell me you’re defending people’s rights if the only rights you’re defending are those related to commercial transactions, because I’d like the next generation to be able to think of a better world as “normal”.