Data license changes, take two

Last post I wrote that I’d be changing the data licensing terms on GovTrack. I sincerely asked for feedback, and I got it. Gunnar, for instance, rightly pointed out that this isn’t everyone’s fight. He also noted that my dry sense of humor wasn’t really working.

The change I planned would have created substantial burdens for re-users of GovTrack’s data and yet would have had little impact, except possibly to annoy end-users. So I’m going to make a different change. This is a lot simpler:

You may not disparage services for being nonpartisan.

This will go into the terms of service to access the regularly updated raw data and API starting tomorrow. (It does not affect regular users of GovTrack or of any of the users of the tools that use GovTrack data.)

I don’t know of any current licensees that were a part of the boycott that started all of this, but I don’t know everyone who uses GovTrack’s data. If your organization can’t handle the new term, then I’m not above saying you can get your data elsewhere.

That said, the source code for the scripts that gather the data remain open source under the GNU AGPL license (see this github project for v2). And I do create special license agreements with other organizations as necessary. So there are at least two routes around this.

All along I suspected I wasn’t going to go ahead with the original changes that I announced. Like I said originally, it was ridiculous. I was trying to make a point, and I did.


This all began because some random guys said some other company should be boycotted for being nonpartisan. It really had nothing to do with me. But as I explained to techPresident I was appalled that:

“This is the first time that someone’s called what our community does ‘evil,'” Tauberer said in an e-mail. “I don’t take that lightly. PCCC’s Rosenbaum had better stand behind that if he is going to be so brash. Is he going to take the links to GovTrack off of the PCCC web site? Because right now those links support the right’s ability to get the same information.”

I think the open gov community is used to me curmudgeonly complaining about various things. Sometimes I try to be polite. But, honestly, I’ve gotten tired of being mostly complacent. In June I called out Rep. Crenshaw for trying to slow down legislative transparency and got almost 1,500 letters sent to Congress about it. This month I’m calling out this ridiculous boycott. Yeah, this might be the start of a new pattern.

A colleague pointed out to me over the weekend that the open source movement has a long history of using licenses to promote ideological positions. The GNU GPL license — the ‘viral’ license that is part of the backbone of the open source world — says you can use my software if you believe in the same sort of openness that I do. The GPL also prevents licensees from exercising software patent rights — which is in many ways a political statement. One of the earliest leaders of the free software movement believes it is a moral imperative for computing technology to be free (free as in freedom). Over at Creative Commons, licenses make a distinction between commercial and non-commercial use, which is something that to a for-profit guy like me thinks is pretty arbitrary.

So I’m not the first to think that giving stuff away can come with substantive terms and still be open. Though in my case, the license is a terms of service, not a copyright license, so the comparison with open source only goes so far.



  1. Hello! I’m a developer that was pretty close to using your raw data to build a few analysis tools when I encountered this licensing term. The organization of your data makes a lot of sense and I appreciate all of your hard work on this. But this term gave me pause.

    Let me say: I don’t foresee a situation in which I would want to express an opinion disparaging a service for being non-partisan. I certainly would not have supported the Netroots Nation boycott. But, should some future situation arise in which I come to the honest conclusion that a service is wrong for being non-partisan (unlikely as that seems), I would prefer to be able to express that opinion.

    The cost of license compliance is to mentally check every comment I might make against the license to make sure I am not disparaging someone for being non-partisan. Or that my comments could not be perceived to be disparaging someone for being non-partisan. As a private citizen who just wants to develop some tools to help people understand their government, that restraint on personal freedom is a bridge too far.

    This seems to be an over-reaction to criticism of the open government community. It seems like a better response would be to simply accept that any good project will always attract criticism, even unfounded criticism. We ought to ignore them.

    Given that the inclusion of this license term is probably not affecting your users in any substantive way, but formally imposes (at least mental) costs of compliance, would you be open to dropping this term now that a year as past and the situation has abated?


  2. it is now over a year after this “new” addition, and i have to comment because i just now came across this.

    first, i want it pointed out that I fully support this policy. the WWII comparison of the policy would be to ignore Switzerland’s neutral stance simply because they allowed Germans to use their banking system.

    nonpartisans cannot be nonpartisan if they use partisan rules

    that being said, I need to point out that it is likely good that you didn’t use the wording that you mentioned on the twelfth.

    i am NOT a lawyer, so anyone who might be affected by what I say here should first consult their lawyer….
    with that disclaimer: about 4 or 5 years ago i heard that a boycott of non-boycotts or possibly the persons refusing to follow a boycott, is not legal,

    i didn’t worry too much at the time so i didn’t bother to fully understand what was being said, but the jist of what i got out of the convo was (1) a boycott is legal as an expression of personal opinion(freedom), but (2) since a personal opinion of not following a boycott is also legal then (3) promoting a boycott of someone who refuses to follow a different boycott is illegal

    as i said, I am not sure of the exact reasoning and i may have got it all wrong, frankly i still don’t understand why boycotting is legal while (effectively) boycotting the boycotters is not… seems like both are personal opinions

    thus PLEASE DO NOT COMMENT unless you are a lawyer who can decipher this and explain what i originally heard

    INSTEAD PLEASE, if comment may affect you see a lawyer about your personal situation

    – – – – – –
    I REPEAT I expect the above mentioned inclusion to be legal as it allows use of data until one disparages a specified group


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