An Open Source Software Police? - InformationWeek

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7/29/2008
10:15 AM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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An Open Source Software Police?

I'm still sorting through the last bits of my OSCON trip notes, but one striking conversation I had was with Byrne Reese of SixApart about people who violate the end-user licensing of for-pay editions of OSS apps. Do we sic the open source cops on them? I'd like to think not.

I'm still sorting through the last bits of my OSCON trip notes, but one striking conversation I had was with Byrne Reese of SixApart about people who violate the end-user licensing of for-pay editions of OSS apps. Do we sic the open source cops on them? I'd like to think not.

The whole thing came about during a discussion of Movable Type's licensing -- something that's become increasingly an issue to them and their users now that they have a fully open source (GPLv2) edition and a professional for-pay version. I asked Byrne what might happen if they found out someone had obtained a copy of the for-pay version and was using it on a fairly high-profile Web site without paying a dime.

"I'd see that more as an opportunity than a obstacle," was the way he put it. In other words, he would have been more inclined to get in touch with them first and work from there, instead of just suing them outright. I thought that sounded like a good idea: why recapitulate the worst excesses of the proprietary software industry when you have a chance to do better? The last thing I would want to see is enforcement of licensing for for-pay editions of OSS through some entity like the BSA.

Keep in mind I'm not talking here about stuff like the lawsuits the Software Freedom Law Center uses to insure that people comply with the GPL (although that's something that could be discussed in parallel with this). The BSA and the SFLC are apples and kumquats. I am talking about illegitimate use of the for-pay version of Movable Type that SixApart licenses to you under its own terms. The former is a lot easier to spot, but it's a lot tougher to find out (short of someone ratting out the offender) that a Web site is using a bootlegged copy of the pro edition of MT.

You could, I guess, use this as an argument that charging money for software at all (as opposed to selling hosting, services, etc.) is immoral, because it creates a situation where piracy is inevitable. I don't take that view, if only because the mere presence of an open source version of a program generally eliminates the need for the vast majority of people to pirate that particular program in the first place. Most of the people who grab Movable Type don't need the professional-level features; that's what 6A is banking on.

In the long run, I hope they're right. I would love to believe that the more open source we use, the less piracy becomes an issue -- and that we're not simply trading one problem for another.

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