Doubts on Software Licenses, 2018 version

Last month I found, once more, that this fundamental topic of our times keeps going through the same, decades-long doubts, and maybe errors.

Doubts on Software Licenses, 2018 version /img/software-license-mess.jpg
image results from searching 'incompatible software licenses'


The place where I found that was the great conference Open 2018. I took lots of notes there, and hope to publish most of them soon. Here, however, I am only sharing the notes about one part of one session, as a contribution to discussions on the very same topic that I have just seen online.

During some session (I did not note which one, but is not important) one of the members of Co-op Cycle described their views about software licensing, which I believe (since I cannot read French, sorry) are more or less presented also in this post

This is my own synthesis/transcript of the main things that that person said (any error in the transcription is obviously mine):

  1. lines of code are the means of production. Therefore WE must own them, instead of going the easy way, that is create our platform by mixing proprietary online services, already existing and very easy and quick to use
  2. We are Open Source , but not for capitalists
  3. Our software is/originally was P2P license, i.e. reciprocity license. Then we started working on a license for the real world, like the Affero/GPLv3-plus, an anticapitalist license.
  4. Many FOSS packages are produced and distributed with licenses that do not exclude profit/appropriation

These, instead, are my own doubts and remarks on each one of those points, except the first (nothing to add there):

  1. No, sorry. If that is what you are, you are NOT Open Source at all then. Nothing against such a position, and it may even be better than Open Source. But Open Source has a different, very precise definition. Let’s not muddle the waters even more, please.
  2. I remember having VERY strong doubts that GPL3 and Affero were good, or anyway usable ideas the very moment they appeared, about fifteen years ago. I had, and have, several kinds of doubts, but I’ll only mention the practical ones here. I remember thinking right away that “people who do not want to share their changes to AFFERO/GPLv3-licensed software that they use on their own servers, will just reformat those changes to run as separate binaries that interact with the AFFERO/GPLv3 ones only via RPC or whatever, and have a good laugh”
  3. See #3, and in any case: so what? Ethics aside (and rest assured that I am not in favour of appropriation), do you really think that adopting new licenses would have any practical effect, in the long run, but hurting the users of those new licenses?

Are you angry that the likes of Facebook or Google “steal your code” to run their own online walled gardens? OK, but messing with software licenses won’t help, in practice. It could have made a difference when those corporations were still garage companies, not now.

The truth is that, in 2018, anything like Google doesn’t really need you to write code anymore. If you release something they need as, say, GPL2 or 3, yes, they will grab it for nothing. If you do it with any smart “anti-predatory license”, you will face the burden to maintain your code alone, because you introduced yet another license many programmers won’t like. And they will just pay someone to look at your code and rewrite the same functionality from scratch.

Legally speaking, the right way to prevent this may be not software licenses, but software patents, which are so bad I’m sure nobody arguing for software freedom could ever want. Plus, of course, enough money to enforce those patents, that is to financially survive taking Google or any similar corporation to court. Get real.

The truth is that proprietary platforms today “outperform” Free / Open Source software not because they “steal” the means of production (which I do agree they do, and is bad), but because:

  1. “Hosting, management, and other elements are often just as important as the core code”, as even the proponents of new licenses acknowledge
  2. Certain companies spend tons of money on stuff that FOSS programmers could never do, or sometimes could never be bothered to care about, from real usability to huge networks/data centres, which are not software anyway.

Humble counter proposal

All this hassle over software license seems to me just one side of the general issue and “megatrend” I have seen at Open 2018 and in many other occasions, for years now: the diffidence for, and lack of knowledge about, that (traditional) Commons and now Cooperatives advocates have for open digital technologies. There is a lot to do to join these worlds. If you want to work together, contact me. In the meantime…

If you want to develop Free as in Freedom platform cooperatives or any other services using software, just reuse and improve the Free as in Freedom software that already exists, together with who is already developing it. It is infinitely more effective than rising walls around you with even more licenses.

Software licenses incompatibilities have already created enough problems in the past. Introducing new ones only forces their advocates to reinvent and maintain alone countless wheels, and is very unlikely to produce any of the desired effects.

Last but not least: if you want to fight the online monopolies of today, demand regulations like this, instead of going after software licenses.