Future-proofing with the RIP License

Jun 06, 2017

This is a post announcing the RIP License. If you’d like to skip the charlatanry, check out the license at cameronmcefee/rip-license.

The Photoshop plugin development community, one that been around for what most people of this generation would call “forever,” is quite small despite its history. There are few that are hearty enough to call themselves “Adobe extension developers”. Like explorers traversing uncharted deserts, there is too much territory to cover, and too few people to cover and understand it all. Fewer still are those that fully understand the ancient dark arts of the software Adobe extensions are built upon.

A number of years ago, amidst the sprawling, multilayered APIs and documentation which exists only in cloying PDFs, an oasis sprung to life. This user forum, where developers of all ranges were able to share knowledge, was the sort of place that you’d always find yourself returning, no matter how many external links you’d followed away from it. In this sanctuary of helpful mentors, neck-bearded oracles, and bumbling noobs, answers could always be found.

Then one day the forum disappeared, taking its tomes of knowledge with it. A few of the community’s more ardent members discovered that the forum’s owner had died months before. Without his continued support, the forum had eventually gone offline. I’ve since forgotten whether his family refused to release the forum or simply did not know how to access it, but the contents are considered lost. A few members attempted to recover the forum contents from Archive.org, but with the knowledge that they could only hope to create a mere shadow of the once great resource.

What stuck with me in watching this unfold was the feeling that the owner, a respected leader in the community, would have wanted the community to have the forum in his absence. I began to think, what about my projects? Most of the things I have done will not be missed, but GuideGuide, an extension that adds a long neglected feature to Photoshop, is used and relied upon by thousands of people.

When our daughter was born, my wife and I decided it was time we each drafted a last will and testament. Unsurprisingly, the section for digital content was a simple text box, providing suggestions for content aimed at the sort of people that would like to pass on their Facebook accounts. There was nothing aimed at people that create digital content.

I started to think, all of my open source projects are fine because they’re public and have licenses. I wish there was a similar way to tell people what to do with my private projects when I die.

Like a good, software inclined person, I sought to solve my problem with something I now irreverently call the RIP License.

With inspiration taken from the MIT license and my last will boilerplate, I designed the RIP License as a file that you add to your private repositories, titled “LICENSE”, just like you’re used to doing with your open source work.

In this file is a template you can use to specify directives for whether your work will be made open source, the license under which the work should be released, how it’s ownership should change, and the conditions under which these directives should be applied.

Once you’ve added RIPs to your private repos, you can update your will with the name of an executor and state that they should be given access to your GitHub account to follow the directive in each private repo. You may want to let this person know that you’ve given them this responsibility.

While this may be enough legal documentation to convince GitHub to give your executor access to your account (they’ve already got a process in place for this sort of thing), you may want to make alternative arrangements for how your executor will gain access, such as granting them contributor privileges.

Since this is deep in legal territory and the only legal certification I hold is IANAL, I had real-life lawyer and fellow GitHub alumni, Steve Kraus, review and improve the document to ensure will actually be viable when used.

In the tech industry it’s not uncommon to meet people who have done noteworthy work with a bus–factor of one. From my own experience, few of my peers have contemplated their own mortality, most of them writing off such thoughts as something to think about when they are older. Yet as Steve put it so eloquently, “It turns out, people die all the time.”

If you really care about a thing you’ve done that isn’t already open source, take some time to add an RIP license so other people can enjoy it long after you are gone. It’s not going to kill you. And if by some ironic twist it does, you can rest in peace knowing you’ve done everything you can to ensure your work will end up in the hands of those that care about it most.

Authors note: if this gains enough traction, I’ll submit it to get an official SPDX identifier and to choosealicense.org.