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Technology Law & Policy Clinic Supports ml5.js in Developing a New Ethical Open Source Software License and Code of Conduct for Machine Learning

This post is part of a series exploring the Clinic's work during the 2020-21 year

ml5.js is an open source project based at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts that helps to make machine learning approachable for a broad audience of artists, creative coders, and students. ml5.js is built around ml5.js’s unique machine learning software, a web-based tool that provides creators and users direct access to powerful machine learning capabilities in their own web browsers. ml5.js supports its software and its community with a range of community initiatives including detailed, easy-to-understand documentation, workshops, and educational videos.

The central goals of the project of ml5.js are not just to make machine learning more accessible and user friendly but also to center the importance of ethics in machine learning and technology at large. The ml5.js community emphasizes the need for individuals and organizations—including ml5.js community members themselves—to develop and apply machine learning technology responsibly. The ml5.js team is committed to teaching the next generation of creative coders to avoid and actively combat bias and discrimination, human rights abuses, and otherwise unethical and harmful uses of machine learning.

In the Spring 2020 semester, student attorneys in NYU’s Advanced Technology Law and Policy (TLP) Clinic worked with ml5.js to help ml5.js develop a new licensing agreement and code of conduct to discourage harmful uses of its machine learning software. ml5.js ultimately released its new ethical open source copyright licensing agreement and novel “evolving” code of conduct in May of 2021. As ml5.js stated in its announcement, “[t]he Code of Conduct describes how we expect everyone to behave while they are in shared ml5.js community spaces. Additionally, the software license requires projects that incorporate ml5.js to follow the rules of the Code of Conduct.”

Values-based software licenses are somewhat unusual—even disfavored—in some parts of the open source community, which has traditionally been “value-neutral” and prioritized downstream users’ freedom to do with software as they please. However, the ml5.js team is committed to exploring new models of open source licensing that embed organizations’ values in their licenses. For more on ml5.js’s new license and Code of Conduct, see this blog post by ml5.js member (and Engelberg Center ED) Michael Weinberg.

This project was led by TLP student attorneys Austin Gillett (’20) and Jesse Kirkland (’21). TLP Clinic Director Jason Schultz and Deputy Director Chris Morten supervised the project.