Scholars' Lab Blog //Software licensing as feminist & queer digital humanities practice
Blog //Software licensing as feminist & queer digital humanities practice
Crossposted to Amanda's blog.

In the interest of sharing more than just our most smooth-sailing digital humanities work, we (Amanda Visconti and Jeremy Boggs) are sharing below a co-written article abstract that was not accepted by the CFP to which we initially submitted it. We’re planning on doing the work described regardless, including documenting the process as described and looking for a different publication venue to share that writing. (If you have suggestions, please let us know! You can email visconti@virginia.edu. Thanks!).

Software licensing as feminist & queer digital humanities practice

Software licenses are legal statements about the way a piece of executable code (i.e. code that can be run on a computer) may be used, governing decisions such as how to cite the code’s creators, the legal responsibilities and retained rights of the code’s creator, how the code may be customized to create new tools, and whether profiting from the code or its customization is allowed. Choices about software licensing can be watershed moments in the intellectual life of code-including digital humanist scholarship. Rather than defaulting to tech standards such as variants of the MIT, Apache, and GPL licenses, decisions about digital humanities software licensing deserve careful debate and research to identify the license that best advances a project’s values and does the most good (and least harm) to greater DH and technical communities.

Three recent events highlight the importance of feminist and queer approaches to evaluating the ethical and moral impact of software license choices:

  • Sarah Mei’s Twitter thread (https://twitter.com/sarahmei/status/1172285551434579968) on Richard Stallman’s harm to the Free Software Foundation (FSF) community, and by extension to the associated copyleft software licenses and their user communities;
  • Stallman’s subsequent resignation from his FSF roles as president and member of the board of directors; and
  • Coraline Ada Ehmke’s creation of the “Hippocratic License” (https://firstdonoharm.dev/), “a modified MIT license that specifically prohibits the use of open source software to harm others”.

Discussions arising from these events motivate this chapter’s case study: a deliberate decision by the Scholars’ Lab (https://scholarslab.lib.virginia.edu/), a research center with a strong history of digital humanities activity, to explore the history and people behind software licenses and begin a policy of better attention to the repercussions of our licensing choices. As an established center with an unusually large number of coders—a four-person R&D team, in addition to three other coders on staff and many student, staff, and faculty coders in our community—we’re hoping to lead other digital humanists in devoting more care to the licenses that shape a project’s life and afterlife.

This chapter offers a literature review of feminist and queer features of existing software licenses, as well as feminist and queer critiques of software licenses. Our focus is documenting our specific experiences pursuing a better licensing policy for our digital humanities lab, including negotiations with other institutional stakeholders, the reasoning behind our choices, and our plans for iterating on this policy as times passes and circumstances change. Following the model of the Documenting the Now project (https://www.docnow.io/), we’ll take responsibility for the community harm that use and support of a given license could or does create, going beyond determining what is legally necessary for our software licensing to attend to what is morally best.

Abstract bibliography

“Case Studies - Creative Commons”. Accessed September 26, 2019. https://wiki.creativecommons.org/wiki/Case_Studies

Chowdhury, Rumman. Tweet: “Who Are Your Go-to Scholars on Feminism and Technology, Particularly Those with Cross-Cultural and Non-Western Perspectives?” Accessed September 25, 2019. https://twitter.com/ruchowdh/status/1154454048067608577

“Comparison of Free and Open-Source Software Licenses”. 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Comparison_of_free_and_open-source_software_licenses&oldid=916093931

Con Diaz, Gerardo. Software Rights: How Patent Law Transformed Software Development in America. Yale University Press, 2019.

“Contributor Covenant: A Code of Conduct for Open Source Projects.” Accessed September 26, 2019. https://www.contributor-covenant.org

Mei, Sarah. Tweet: “I’ve Tweeted for Many Years about How Awful Richard ‘RMS’ Stallman Is - the Pedophilia, the Ableism, the Misogyny. Inevitably, Each Time I Do, Dudes Examine My Receipts & Then Say ‘All Those Incidents Are from Years Ago! He’s Changed Now!’ NOPE. Https://T.Co/Ti2SrlKObp’ / Twitter.” Accessed September 18, 2019. https://twitter.com/sarahmei/status/1172283772428906496

“Mozilla Public Licence.” Accessed September 26, 2019. https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/MPL

Troncoso, Stacco and Ann Marie Utratel. “Last Night A Distributed Cooperative Organization Saved My Life: A Brief Introduction to DisCOs”. Accessed October 16, 2019. https://hackernoon.com/last-night-a-distributed-cooperative-organization-saved-my-life-a-brief-introduction-to-discos-4u5cv2zmn

Wagner, Claudia, David García, Mohsen Jadidi, and Markus Strohmaier. “It’s a Man’s Wikipedia? Assessing Gender Inequality in an Online Encyclopedia.” ICWSM, 2015

Wellner, Galit, and Tiran Rothman. “Feminist AI: Can We Expect Our AI Systems to Become Feminist?” Philosophy & Technology, May 2019. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-019-00352-z

Cite this post: Amanda Visconti and Jeremy Boggs. “Software licensing as feminist & queer digital humanities practice”. Published January 22, 2020. https://scholarslab.lib.virginia.edu/blog/software-licenses-feminist-queer-digital-humanities-practice/. Accessed on .