The right of disattribution

While discussing the ttyp0 font license, Richard Fontana and I had a disagreement about its suitability for Fedora. My reasoning for putting it on the “good” list was taking shape as I wrote. Now that I’ve had some time to give it more thought, I want to share a more coherent (I hope) argument. The short version: authors have a fundamental right to require disattribution.

What is disattribution?

Disattribution is a word I invented because the dictionary has no antonym for attribution. Attribution, in the context of open works, means saying who authored the work you’re building on. For example, this post is under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license. That means you can use and remix it, provided you credit me (Attribution) and also let others use and remix your remix (ShareAlike). On the other hand, disattribution would say something like “you can use and remix this work, but don’t put my name on it.”

Why disattribution?

There are two related reasons an author might want to require disattribution. The first is that either the original work or potential derivatives are embarrassing. Here’s an example: in 8th grade, my friend wrote a few lines of a song about the destruction of Pompeii. He told me that I could write the rest of it on the condition that I don’t tell anyone that he had anything to do with it.

The other reason is more like brand protection. Or perhaps avoiding market confusion. This isn’t necessarily due to embarrassment. Open source maintainers are often overworked. Getting bugs and support requests from a derivative project because the user is confused is a situation worth avoiding.

Licenses that require attribution are uncontroversial. If we can embrace the right of authors to require attribution, we can embrace the right of authors to require disattribution.

Why not disattribution?

Richard’s concerns seemed less philosophical and more practical. Open source licenses are generally concerned with copyright law. Disattribution, particularly in the second reasoning, is closer to trademark law. But licenses are the tool we have available; don’t be surprised when we ask them to do more than they should.

Perhaps the bigger concern is the constraint it places on derivative works. The ttyp0 license requires not using “UW” as the foundry name. Richard’s concern was that two-letter names are too short. I don’t agree. There are plenty of ways to name a project that avoid one specific word. Even in this specific case, a name like “nuwave”—which contains “uw”—because it’s an unrelated “word.”

Excluding a specific word is fine. A requirement that excludes many words or provides some other unreasonable constraint would be the only reason I’d reject such a license.

2 thoughts on “The right of disattribution

  1. As the author of UW ttyp0, I agree with your reasons why authors may insist on disattribution. I also confirm that “UWash ttyp0” would not violate the ttyp0 licence. The use of the term “word” in the license is intentional. (See also the example in the ttyp0 FAQ.)

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