Paul Smith

We (the DNC) have relicensed the Democratic Party’s voter registration application under a standard MIT license, and accompanied the source code with an advisory notice regarding the use of the software. I wanted to explain why we did this.

The Democratic Party initially released the source code to its online voter registration app late last summer, with the intent of making it available for all the standard reasons people and organizations choose when they open-source code: so that it can be improved, so that bugs can be fixed, so others can take it and build further new applications on top of it.

However, it was quickly apparent we had a problem with the open source community. The issue was with the license. It contained a clause that placed restrictions on its use. The reason this clause was included was to address our concerns regarding the highly regulated and closely monitored nature of voting and voter registration. We wanted to avoid a scenario where, either inadvertently or through malice, someone set up a site based on the code, and without following state and federal guidelines and rules, defrauded or disenfranchised a voter. Now, regardless of our good intentions on this matter, the fact that we had taken a standard open source license and amended it with this restrictive clause meant that we did not pass “free and open source” muster, with emphasis on the “free” as in “speech”.

We needed a solution that addressed both the problematic license and our concerns regarding the good-faith use of the software that protected voters. A member of the open source community, Karl Fogel, stepped forward with a proposal: change the license to an unmodified standard OSI-approved license, and include along with the source code an advisory document that outline these legal concerns. The notice would not be binding or otherwise modify the license and therefore terms of use; however, like any piece of open source software, people are “free” to use it illegally, and free to suffer the consequences if they do. The important thing is to remind users of their responsibility to act in accordance with the law, especially when it comes to something as precious and beseiged as our franchise. We feel the combination of a standard FOSS license and a non-binding advisory document expressing the intent of the copyright holder is a way forward for political organizations to release potentially sensitive soure code while at the same time communicating the vital issues animating and conditioning that release.

Now, some observers may not see this as remarkable. There was a bad license, it’s been changed, what’s the fuss? I want to acknowledge the hard work across the organization, from software engineers to lawyers, to find a way to give back to the open source community and satisfy the concerns of both. There are many reasons why organizations don’t release their software as open source. We want to set an example, however small, that there are non-license ways to state any reservations or guiding principles your organization that ordinarily would have prevented a release. Key among these are engaging with the community. As we have learned time and again, good solutions often originate through trust and dialogue.