The Hippocratic License: A new software license that prohibits uses that contravene the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Coraline Ada Ehmke's Hippocratic License is a software license that permits the broad swathe of activities enabled by traditional free/open licenses, with one exception it bars use by: "individuals, corporations, governments, or other groups for systems or activities that actively and knowingly endanger, harm, or otherwise threaten the physical, mental, economic, or general well-being of individuals or groups in violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

The Open Source Initiative maintains the canonical list of free/open licenses based on compliance with its Open Source Definition, which excludes licenses that ""discriminate against any person or group of persons" and that "restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor." On this basis, OSI cofounder Bruce Perens says the Hippcratic License is not compatible with the OSD.

Ehmke calls the OSD "horribly dated" because it doesn't enable software developers to ensure that "our technology isn't used by fascists."

The OSD was developed in response to a proliferation of "open" licenses, many of which were open in name only, attempting to co-opt the word "open" without providing true openness (for example, Microsoft fielded a "shared source" license that permitted limited scrutiny of its sourcecode, but restricted the creation of new works based on that code).

Since the OSD's inception, the "field of endeavor" clause has given rise to controversy over attempts to expand the idea of "software freedom" into other human rights domains, including the right to be free from violence, harassment, exploitation, etc. The OSI has maintained that adjudicating whether a use qualifies for a field of endeavor prohibition was too legally intensive to make these licenses broadly useful, but Ehmke counters that the UN's Declaration has 70 years' worth of interpretive cases and scholarship that clears up this ambiguity.

But the core of the Free Software movement (which is distinct from, but related to, the Open Source movement) has always been a consideration of the ethics of technical production modes (by contrast, "open source" tends to emphasize the instrumental benefits of openness, in the form of lower costs and better code). The free software movement was always split on the question of "open source": even though the "open" framing drove adoption of free and open code, the focus on technical benefits rather than ethics has allowed big companies to gradually erode software freedom for anyone but themselves.

Meanwhile, as interest in tech ethics surges, and technologists investigate codes of practice and educational projects to infuse ethics into technical work, individual technologists are already withdrawing their freely available code in protest of its use in the context of American ethnic cleansing.

The fracture line between "free" and "open" (or "ethical" and "instrumental") keeps widening. Whether or not the Hippocratic License takes off, this will not be the last attempt to allow ethically motivated free software authors to keep their handiwork out of the hands of unethical actors.

Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person obtaining a copy of this software and associated documentation files (the “Software”), to deal in the Software without restriction, including without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software, and to permit persons to whom the Software is furnished to do so, subject to the following conditions:

The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software.

The software may not be used by individuals, corporations, governments, or other groups for systems or activities that actively and knowingly endanger, harm, or otherwise threaten the physical, mental, economic, or general well-being of individuals or groups in violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/).

The Hippocratic License [Coraline Ada Ehmke]

An Open Source License That Requires Users to Do No Harm [Klint Finley/Wired]

(Image: Raed Mansour, CC BY, modified)