Why permissive licenses are dumb

I am not a lawyer, just someone with too many RSS feeds, too much time and fringe political views. I villify the MIT license a lot in this post, but a lot of what I say applies to all permissive licenses.

Why the MIT license “suffers” from the same “problem” as the GPL

Waivering warranty, an explicit goal that makes up ⅔ of the MIT License, restricts and limits the freedom of people using your software - they should be allowed to sue you and incur any fines (or even prison time, in the most extreme example) they want!

But of course, this is nonsense. Open source software is not “sold”, it is released and gifted: never is there ever a deal or transfer of funds (barring donations), only a git repo you can copy-paste from. The state, in contrast to reality, disagrees: a warranty is an inherent part of something being given to someone else.

Despite how unheard of it is for software to not waiver its warranty, a common criticism of copyleft licenses is that it waivers the rights of derivatives to hold copyright over it. Copyright is not some inalienable rule of nature, it is yet another creation of the state (similar to the implicit warranty) that only exists because the state demands it does. It is hypocritical to decry a warranty as “unnecesarry” and “overbaring”, but not apply the same views unto copyright.

Before you start thinking that the two cannot be compared, as copyright merely limits the copying of something whereas warranty the distribution, I would propose that copyright is worse - much, much worse. Copyrght is just one head of a much more vicious beast. This beast is one of censorship, unsmasking of anonymous speech, literally breaking wheelchairs, utter disregard for those with accesibility needs, stealing 9 year old girls whinnie the pooh laptops, locking down essential medical equiptment in the name of Capitalism™, banning you from repairing things that you bought and own, screwing over public libraries, banning archives of old video game manuals you can’t even buy anymore, stopping people uploading or livestreaming police abuses of power. I could (and indeed would) list more, but this post is alread beginning to seem a little long winded.

The true difference between a warranty and copyright is that a warranty comes back to bite you in the ass when someone blames you for something breaking, whereas copyright bites other people in the ass when someone creates a locked-down derivetive; a good example is MIT-licensed Minix being used to make the rootkit “Intel ME”. The MIT license is deliberately designed to allow people to take your source code and do both good and evil with it, even worse it calls this neutrality a virtue rather than a gentle appeal to evil.

So then, if the MIT license is so evil and selfish why do we accept it?

Corporate’s best friend

Companies loooove permissive licenses.

If they are writing software, then by making it MIT licensed they maintain the right to add in their own proprietary addons to it (such as with VS Code or Google Chrome), in other words Open Core.

If they are using your software as a library in their project however, then the MIT license lets them keep their software proprietery (freeing up all the evils of copyright to them) without having to actually implement the thing your libraray does! From their perspective, this is an absolute steal: they get to rip off your code, and then profit off of it using the things they made with it - oftentimes exploiting people who are using it. All the while, they don’t even need to give you a penny in return!

Sure, that’s just how free software works, but free software only works if the software stays free. When people start forking and not giving back, the entire gift economy model begins to break appart.

The viral argument

An argument often made against copyleft (CC-SA and GPL family) licenses is that they are “viral”, and that even a tiny ammount of copyleft anything can “infect” a whole project; while this is a concern if you like permissive licenses (and not just because they are the lesser of two evils), we can also look at this from another perspective.

Copyrighted code is viral! If you include even a tiny bit of proprietary evils in your software, then it will infect the rest of your codebase, and the whole lot will become illegal to distribute!

Oncemore, copyright is just as alien as copyleft. Because permissively licensed code is inherently open to copyright, the only reason you would want to use it is if you are fine with people making propritary things out of your work. If your aim is to minimise the ammount of proprietary in the world, would it not be a good thing to ensure that the derivatives of your project (and all their derivetives) remain free?

License prejudice

Okay, this is all great, but what if you just don’t like the GPL?

It’s too long

Long, while unweildy and often more error prone, is unfortunately a staple of the legal system. Let’s say, for example, you don’t specify in your hypothetical copyleft license what exactly the word “distribute” means in “you must distribute the source code”: congratulations, you just forced a poor developer to contact a very kind person living in China to personally go down to the office of a software company after they insisted that the source code must be distributed in person.

Furthermore, the reason why the GPL is so long in comparison with licenses such as the MIT is because the legal system is biased against copyleft. Legal copyright protections are automatic, implicit, and must be explicitly waivered (often individually, which is why you get long lists of “use, copy, modify, merge, publish….”). The GPL, being explicitly anti-copyright (see “Hating Copyright” if that sentence seemed off to you), thus needs to work around each and every copyright protection in the books.

I don’t like Stallman or The FSF

Well I don’t like MIT, so welcome the the club of not liking people who make software licenses. The use of a license does not necesarrily mean you support the people who wrote it, as you only choose the license for it’s validity as… a license.

Besides, I’m willing to bet at least one line of the software on your computer right now was written by a straight up fascist. As I said, use does not imply endorsement of author.

If you have read this far on into the article, then you can probably guess I am vehemently anti-copyright. Reasons why are explained better than I ever could briefly here, less briefly here and very wholly here. If you think copyright is a neccesarry evil, then it may be best to look at one of those links or skip this section (you will be very confused).

In an ideal world, there would be no copyright at all and everything is public domain (barring software, which because it can be obfuscated is inherently difficult to make (both source and derivetives) public domain, thus programmers should be able to copyleft it).


I do think that attribution is very important, but I also acknowledge that many people will choose to omit citations in their derivetive works. However, this issue exists regardless of whether copyright does, and so does its solution: automated content scanners will look for things other people have made - except in a copyrightless world that won’t lead to it being taken down.

For once, we can actually have upload filters that people like! We can see who made how much of what, find remixes of our faviourite songs and films, and have new people find the things we made! All of this can finally occur outside of the cover of darkness, because there is no more DMCA waiting in the light.

Okay, let’s assume that the GPL is actually pro-copyright; furthermore, lets pretend that all works in are licensed under it (or CC-BY-SA).

Congradulations, you have just reached a world where there is absolutely no copyright, and having so many license notices everywhere was so annoying that governments everywhere ditched almost all parts of copyright and the GPL became implicit in everything, enshrined in law as the new default. Sure, you can argue that the “ultimate” state of the GPL of being enshrined in law is a form of copyright, but calling mandated distribution “copyright” is a bit misleading… Even then, the GPL would still be a massive improvement over the lifetime+70 years of monopoly authors get over works currently.

In an ideal world, there would be no state at all (and, if that sentence sounded wrong to you, then disregard this paragraph because this blog is too long to get into it!), but in an anarchist utopia there would also be very thew people releasing works as proprietary, and even then then source code hacks and reverse-engineering would still happen, except now people can build off of it!

In the mean time, replacing copyright with copyleft would still massively decrease the power of the state (yes, you heard me right, no more police blasting “Let it go” while throwing a statistically black person into a concrete floor because of drugs that they planted in their car), all the while allowing the creative commons to finally flourish.

Code you dont care about

Okay, you might be thinking, this copyleft stuff actually sounds alright - but why the damn would I use it for my <100 line programming-for-fun project!

Because it stops people from saying that the MIT license is “the default choice” or “the standard for this language”: every time a small project is licensed permissively it put a bug in your mind that says “yes, permissive license is good, this is nice, you want this” and boom, you just licensed your next serious project as permissive aswell!

Even then, if your code is so small that nobody would care about it then why go with permissive anyway? If you really don’t want to do GPL because it is too long, at least do some esoteric license that big companies will shy away from, and other individual programmers like you will know to just pretend are either permissive or copyleft.

Standards and protocols

In the long term, it would be cool to finally be able to say “copyleft standard” instead of “proprietary standard”, but in the mean time permissive licensing seems to be the way to go. You probably can’t force implementations of a standard to conform to the license of the standard anyway, so for now pull the good ol’ microsoft trick: Embrace, extend, extinguish (copyleft edition)!