+CAL Ethical IP Licensing

Artists, Software Developers, Tech Workers: You’re the Hero You’ve Been Waiting For

If you’re a tech worker, writer, academic, artist, musician, scientist or inventor who cares about human rights, there is good news: you hold in your hands a vastly under-utilized tool to impact policy and practice on a national and global level. As a generator of valuable Intellectual Property (IP), you can place conditions on your IP, ensuring that its use is consistent with your values.

IP refers to ideas, creations, or other “property” that comes from someone’s mind. Songs, research papers, paintings, software code, and inventions are all types of IP. These are legally protected (if the creator chooses) through copyrights, trademarks, and patents. Some creators want their IP to be accessible to everyone, others are required to give the rights to their employers when signing an employment contract. What if you don’t mind sharing your IP, but you want to make sure that it is not used in harmful ways?

We have already started to see actions taken by ethical IP creators. Since the last presidential election, some tech workers have organized to demand that their employers refrain from using their IP in support of the Muslim ban, immigration-related surveillance, and the use of AI for drones.

These demands could be made even more powerful if embedded in the creator’s copyright license or patent. IP conditions are permanent, and travel with the IP wherever it goes, no matter who is using it. This creates economic incentives that discourage the unethical behaviors in the first place. But when harm does occur, these conditions provide grounds for IP producers to sue US corporations in US courts. The added costs of these liabilities creates additional economic incentives for corporations to refrain from the unethical actions.

Promoting Ethical Intellectual Property Through +CAL

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CAL has developed a number of licenses and IP assignment clauses for employment agreements to allow intellectual property creators of all types (artists, inventors, engineers, coders, musicians, etc.) to condition the use of their creations on compliance with basic human rights and environmental norms. We view intellectual property law as an untapped resource for human rights advocates, and through these licenses we are empowering creators to contribute to a more sustainable economy and a more just world.

The terms of a particular license can be a reflection of your own values or priorities, or the values of your community. For Amazon workers, that might be a condition in your IP restricting facial recognition software from being used by ICE, or for surveillance of communities of color. For Google workers, that could be prohibiting the use of your IP in certain Pentagon contracts. For a tech start-up, this might be a way to ensure that the values of your founders stay with your company into the future, even if your company is sold or goes public.

How Ethical IP Can be Used Now

This is a new, emerging strategy. We believe it has a lot of potential, but we have only just begun. CAL has developed draft licensing language that can be used by creators of IP in a few different ways.


As an artist, designer, writer, or any sort of creative, you can use your copyright license to make sure your work is never used to harm either human rights or the environment. The CC+CAL license can be added alongside your Creative Commons license as a separate agreement providing different permissions. You can include restrictions on how your work is used in the commercial context.

Inventions, Science, and Academia

Inventors, engineers, entrepreneurs can take advantage of CC+CAL for copyright licenses (ie research papers). But note that the protections extend to the creation itself, not the knowledge behind it. For example, a copyright licence could restrict the use of an article that you wrote, but not the knowledge explained within it.

Software Developers

The +CAL Software License operates in a similar way to open source software, but is distinct because it allows you to use your copyright for commercial purposes, subject to these restrictions. You can share your software for free, but put limitations on its use. This is particularly useful for freelance developers, or tech company employees who contribute code back to the open source community and who could get their employers on board.

Tech Workers

For employees of software companies, you can retain some control over your IP. The +CAL Assignments Clause language for employment contracts can be added into your employment contract negotiations to help you place restrictions on how your employer can use the IP that you are agreeing to hand over, or “assign” to them once employed.

*While CAL cannot draft custom contracts for individual IP producers, we are eager to see how individuals around the world will use this idea to advocate for human rights and the environment within their own contracts. Contact us if you have questions about how to adapt this license to your needs.

Check out our blog series for some additional background.