This is a brief request on behalf of distribution maintainers, intended for those who produce and edit themes and their content. In it, I make a request for clarity and thoroughness in the copyright and license terms applied to themes, to make it easier to include your themes in Free Software distributions.
Filling a gap, I recently set out to prepare a package of Sawfish themes for inclusion in the Debian GNU/Linux distribution. Think what you may of the Debian packaging process, the technical side of the project has proved to be the easy part. Unexpectedly, I’ve spent far more time trying to identify the copyrights on themes and to determine the licenses under which they are available.
The basic problem is that many theme authors, having produced a shiny new theme for a window manager, tend to tuck in a quick README with a few sentences of explanation, then post it somewhere. While nearly every theme mentions the author’s name, few give an explicit copyright, and almost none indicate the license terms under which the theme has been released.
Taking a conservative view of intellectual property law (as distributions such as Debian are obliged to do), just because a theme was posted doesn’t give me any right to use it, much less redistribute it. To pass it on, I need explicit permission, and I need to be able to properly credit the copyright to the author. Posting it on a site that lists a license (e.g., freshmeat) helps, but the license is too easily separated from the content – one download, and it’s gone.
This becomes especially important when themes are built from other themes. Rolling up a long chain of authors can be difficult, especially if a theme has been evolving for a long time. For example, the “Dome” series of tabbed Sawfish window themes has seen a dozen revisions by at least eight authors. This makes for very tired package maintainers. In preparing Debian’s sawfish-themes package, I’ve tried to contact perhaps two dozen theme authors. Amongst other things, I’ve found that theme authors, as a group, are really nice folks. Every author who returned my mail was entirely friendly and affable, generally happy to see the themes redistributed, and willing to clear up all copyright and license issues. Some were more helpful yet, leading me through the histories of certain themes and pointing me to previous authors. Sadly, some authors’ email addresses are no longer functional, or were never included; when I couldn’t contact the authors, I couldn’t include the theme. Some excellent themes had to be excluded for this reason.
I don’t wish to get into the merits of the various licenses here, but it does help the distribution makers if you pick compatible licenses (in Debian’s case, those compatible with the Debian Free Software Guidelines). Authors of themes for the Free Software world most often use the GPL, which works just fine. One thing to avoid, common in the world of theming for proprietary software, is to mark a theme “free for noncommercial use”. Such a license is incompatible with every Open Source license and cannot be included in a distribution based thereon.
To help distributions keep the license terms clear, so we can include your themes, here are some suggestions:
On every text-based theme file where comments are possible, include your copyright, as in “Copyright (c) 2002 by John A. Smith \email@example.com”, and a pointer to where the license terms can be found. Whenever you include content from elsewhere – such as images from another theme – make it clear where they came from, and who made them. Place their copyright and license notices alongside yours. Clearly explain the lineage involved, and the nature of the derivation – “inspired by X” or “made to resemble Y”, compared to “titlebar and icons taken from Z.”
Don’t reuse other people’s images or code unless they released it under a license you’re prepared to honor (again, any OSS license is generally ideal.)
If your window manager/application’s theme format makes it possible, include a README or something comparable (e.g., Enlightenment’s ABOUT/ theme dox). In it, along with whatever else you have to say, give the copyright as above, the terms under which you’re releasing the theme, and a way you can be contacted, such as your email address. If you’ve incorporated images or other binary content from elsewhere, indicate which files they are and the copyright/licenses for them.
Should you opt to use the GPL or LGPL, the Free Software Foundation has an excellent explanation of how to apply the license and where to put the notices; see http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-howto.html. Even if you use another license, the instructions given there are helpful.
These aren’t exciting details, especially when you’ve prepared an exciting new look for people’s desktops, but it’s usually pretty easy to do, and it can help distro maintainers spread your themes far and wide. You wouldn’t release software without a license. Take a moment and tend to your themes, also.