Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Is it POSSible (or PROSSible) that the great FOSS debate is missing an important point?

David M. Williams (one of my fellow writers at iTWire) has just posted an opinion piece that got my grey matter going, see Free software isn't freeware: why Linux and FOSS have a higher standard

You’ll find some interesting, on the whole supportive, comments to David’s article here.

I thought that thee was an additional aspect of open source missing from his arguments, and missing also from just about every other thing I’ve read on the FOSS topic, including those by the arch-advocate Richard Stallman, so I added these comments on iTWire

You haven't quite covered all the bases regarding "free" and "gratis" and "non-gratis" and "open source" in my opinion.

Let's have a pseudo-hypothetical example. Apart from other gratis apps that I generously offer, suppose I have a non-gratis product "Fantastic App" -- gotta make a living somehow, so why not charge for at least one of my apps?

I've slaved away developing over many months, and keep coming out with minor enhancements (let's call these "releases') and less frequently major enhancements (let's call these "versions"). If you are willing to agree with the license and usage terms for FantasticApp and pay a license fee for any given version of it, then I let you have it together with all the source code to use however you like throughout your organization. All bug fixes and minor releases incur no extra fee, but there's an upgrade fee if you choose to upgrade to a newer major version.

Since you have all the source then surely FantasticApp is "open source" is it not? If I get run over by the proverbial Bourke Street bus (you probably don't know that we had double-decker buses in Bourke Street, Melbourne, some decades ago), there's no issue since you have all of the code.

But it's proprietary because the license states that you cannot share it with anybody outside your organization. Nobody forced you to purchase the license in the first place. You were free to try to get the same or a similar app elsewhere, presumably agreeing to license my app because it was the only one of its sort or the other were in some way unsuitable for your needs.

I would intend to demand payment from and/or sue any organization that obtained the source for FantasticApp without paying the appropriate license fee, or released to other organizations who hadn't paid up.

So this is a piece of non-gratis "proprietary open source software" (or "POSS") is it not? Or maybe it would be more accurately labeled "proprietary restricted open source software" (or "PROSS"). What's wrong with all that? Surely we aren't expected to develop apps like FantasticApp for no financial return if we want to make a living from them from at least some of our efforts, that seems absurd to me.

Richard Stallman, eat your heart out over this one!

And what are your opinions on my POSS/PROSS concept?


  1. well that is why Richard Stallman talks about "Free software" rather than Open Source. If you are restricting the freedom of your users then it is not Free software. Just because it isn't compiled or they have access to the source code does not make it Free software, or for that matter "Open Source" in terms of the Open Source Definition. This is proprietary software pure and simple. Source code visibility doesn't make it any less proprietary, any more than source escrow would.

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  3. Not quite my point, Alan. My discomfort with the FOSS movement is that they tend to obfuscate or cause confusion regarding the two different connotations of the word "free" whether or not they intended to do so.

    In my pseudo-hypothetical example of the FantasticApp product, the users who pay the license fee are TOTALLY FREE to view and use the code in any way that they like WITHIN THEIR OWN ORGANIZATION. No usage restrictions whatsoever! Is that not freedom?

    FantasticApp is indeed proprietary because the license [that you agree to if you "freely" decide to go ahead] states that you can use it only if you pay a license fee for it (so it isn't "free as in beer"), but for you [as a paid-up licensee] it is still "free as in freedom" is it not.

    What's at all wrong with proprietary/commercial in this way? Otherwise, how would software vendors be expected to make a living? This is what's really troubling me about the FOSS movement's attitude. My POSS application would offer total freedom of use, but only if you pay for it, would it not?

  4. You have still put limits on the use of the software: "WITHIN THEIR OWN ORGANIZATION". This is the border that makes the software proprietary - the original owners desire is that persons outside the organization not have access to the source code, regardless if the licensee wants to give that access or not.

  5. Hello, Anonymous. Yes, of course I realize that the software license for my hypothetical FantasticApp software imposes a limitation. My main point is that freedom can rightly have limits, which to me seems glossed over by the FOSS movement.

    Many of us live in "open and free" democracies, but this doesn't mean that we are free to do whatever we like. We're free within limits defined by our constitution and laws, which can vary between countries and at several levels within countries (federal, state, city/commune). So we can feel free and be able to pursue happiness in our own way, yet if we move to another state or another country we might have some of our original freedoms restricted (and some restrictions might be lifted).

    To a certain extent, freedom is in the eye of the beholder. I get the strong feeling that the FOSS people think that even a mild form of proprietariness -- have I invented a new word -- such as POSS/PROSS that I'm proposing, is inherently evil no matter what.

    How could POSS be evil? You get total freedom within the limits of its individual "constitution" (the particular license that you freely agree to, which may and probably will vary from vendor to vendor or even product to product).