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The Organization for Ethical Source: Increasing the Adoptability of Ethical Licenses

United Nations New York City


Ethical-Source Movement Opens New Open-Source Organization by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols details the creation of the Organization for Ethical Source (OES). OES is a non-profit created by ethical source advocates. The goal of OES is to increase the adoption of Ethical Source licenses.

Why Should You Read This Article?

Vaughan-Nichols provided ample context to the creation of ethical source licenses. Ethical source licensing has a long history, and it mostly consists of failures; OES’ goal is to change that. For example, some ethical licenses (i.e., Hippocratic License 2.1) use the MIT open-source license as a backbone; then, add human rights clauses in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Global Compact. The human rights clauses are what makes the license ethical. Vaughan-Nichols explanation of standard licensing, and ethical source licensing, helps the reader understand the differences between them.  

Another benefit of the article is that Vaughan-Nichols explores the perspectives of OES’ legal and funding bodies. OES’ partners like the Corporate Accountability Lab, a pro bono legal team, and the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm, are quoted. This helps the reader understand the development and structure of OES as an organization. 

The article also provides why some licenses in open source are incompatible with ethical licenses. The primary reason open source and ethical licenses are incompatible is because some open source licenses include Freedom Zero. Freedom Zero allows software to run for any purpose. 

Freedom zero, the right to run the program for any purpose, comes first in the four freedoms because if users do not have that right with respect to computer programs they run, they ultimately do not have any rights in those programs at all. Efforts to give permission only for good uses, or to prohibit bad ones in the eyes of the licensor, violate the requirement to protect freedom zero. Thus they cannot be free software licenses, and cannot be “open source” licenses unless that category now includes licenses that don’t protect all the fundamental software freedoms.

Eben Moglen, Columbia law professor, 2019

Freedom Zero allows software to be used for the creation of a bomb or for the work of a local charity. Ethical licenses want to restrict the usage of their software (i.e. the software should not help with the creation of a bomb, but can be used to help a local charity). Vaughan-Nichols decision to include the conflict between open and ethical source helps the reader understand that they do not perfectly overlap; this is critical for the reader to understand because many ethical source advocates promote open source software.

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Questions and Critiques

The article left me wondering about the effectiveness of Fortune 500 company ethics. Vaughan-Nichols notes that ethics are appearing in “numerous big tech companies” that produce artificial intelligence software like Google and Microsoft. Google and Microsoft have drowned in ethics-related controversies; Google’s secret search engine built for the Chinese government to Microsoft’s contract with ICE are microscopic compared to their overall collection of ethical violations. Given Google and Microsoft’s lack of credibility, it was not effective for Vaughan-Nichols to cite them as companies including ethics in their software production. Vaughan-Nichols should expand upon his reasoning for including immoral companies as promoters of ethical software production; at present, it is difficult for the reader to follow his train of thought. 

Another issue is that the article does not explain how OES plans on increasing the adoptablity of ethical source licenses. Specifically, Vaughan-Nichols overlooks why ethical-source licensing has previously failed, and how OES will improve the adoptablity of ethical source licenses. This would give the reader insight as to why ethical source licensing has failed, and what OES plans on doing to improve the adoption of ethical source licenses. In short, Vaughan-Nichols disregards the topic of his article: what is OES doing to promote ethical source licenses?

Lastly, Vaughan-Nichols’ article should have included more information about the potential success and failures of OES. Vaughan-Nichols should provide his input, or the input of an OES advocate and OES detractor, to where they think the fate of OES and ethical source licenses will be.

TLDR Questions:

  1. OES promotes ethical licenses because of companies like Google and Microsoft’s immoral software usage. Why does Vaughan-Nichols compare the ethical practices of OES to the immoral practices of Google and Microsoft?
  2. What do experts say about OES’ future?
  3. What is Vaughan-Nichols opinion of OES, and what are his predictions about the future success or failure of OES?


This article provides a meaningful update to what is going on in the ethical source community. The article provides a neutral standpoint on an ideologically driven issue, but does not provide expert opinions. Providing multiple opinions on the future of OES and ethical source licensing gives readers insight as to why some people support initiatives like OES, and why others reject ethical source licenses entirely. 

Overall, I give this article 6/10 starts. (Bad=0-3; Good=4-6; Great=7-10).

Portrait of Olivia Gallucci in garden, used in LNP article.

Written by Olivia Gallucci

Olivia is an honors student at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She writes about security, open source software, and professional development.