Free Software vs. Gratis Software

A lot of folks are unclear on the subtleties of free software and open source. Mike Hogan writes a blog article”Is Hybrid Licensing of OSS Hypocrisy?” to try to shed some light on this. With respect, I think he has missed part of it.

We’re talking about two orthogonal things here. One is open-source versus closed-source, and the other is whether we charge money for software licenses or not. As Mike points out, the former is about development methodology. The latter is about business model.

There ought to be nothing wrong with charging money for open-source software. In fact, there isn’t — even the GPL permits this. This is related to the origin of open-source in the Free Software movement. “Free software” to them is about what the user is licensed to do with that software, not whether they paid anything to license it. In fact, some companies package free software and charge for it (presumably with some added value).

The marketing interpretation of “free software” is the “free chips & salsa” concept Mike mentions. It’s a way of encouraging the market to adopt this product. It’s a loss leader, usually followed by upselling the customer with other products or services.

There’s also a case for no-charge versions of closed-source software. Typically these have either limited features (“crippleware”) or they expire after a limited time (e.g. “demo”).

Few companies have found a way to use open source methods to develop full products they then charge money for. But this could simply be because it’s hard to drive adoption of any software product, regardless of whether it’s open-source or closed-source.

On the issue of hybrid licensing, I see this as no hypocrisy; I see it as more freedom. If I develop some code, offer it under the GPL license, and you use my code as part of your project, then you are obligated to license your project with a GPL-compatible license. This is termed the “viral” nature of the GPL license, and it’s clearly intended to promote the free software movement.

What if you don’t want to adopt a GPL-compatible license for your project? Well, no one is forcing you to use my code. But my code is really amazingly good, and you want it. You want it so much that you’re willing to give me money if I grant you a license to use it under different terms. If I’m willing to do that, now you have more freedom — you can choose to contribute your own code to the body of free software in the world, or you can choose not to. But the latter choice may have a different price tag associated with it.

This should still promote the principles of the free software movement. It would be wrong to charge someone for their freedom. But in the hybrid license model, you can avoid paying for a license simply by joining the movement, by spreading the freedom. If you want to stick to your closed-source model, you can pay for the privilege of using my code in that way.

I don’t see any hypocrisy in a software maker using a hybrid licensing model, as long as they are consistent and honest about it.

Can I Use Example Code from Internet Q&A Sites?

A user recently asked:

Scenario:

  • A developer is working on a project and encounters a problem.
  • They ask a question on the internet somewhere (ie stackoverflow.com)
  • Someone answers their question and provides a nice code snippet that just about does what they want.

Where does one legally stand if the developer includes the code verbatim in their project’s code?

I know I’ve done this before…and I’m sure others have too…but I’d really like to know what the legal or ethical answer is to this question.

Note: never make business decisions based on legal advice you read on the internet — including mine! Confirm this with a qualified legal professional.

StackOverflow seems to offer its content under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license. See the logo and link at the bottom of the page.

This means you are free to copy, distribute, and transmit any content you see here, or to remix or adapt the content.

However, you must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author (though I can’t find where this is specified on StackOverflow), and if you alter or build upon the content, you may distribute it only under a compatible license. So it’s similar to LGPL, in that respect.

I would recommend that you do not copy code or other content from StackOverflow verbatim, if you need to use it in a commercial project.

  • Should one use the example code and move on?

    No. You need to be aware of the license and comply with it, or in theory you could get your project into trouble. Realistically, this is very unlikely. But it is still possible to cause problems.

  • Should one use the example code and provide a comment referencing its origin?

    Yes, attribution is required by the Creative Commons license used by StackOverflow.

  • Should one inform the provider of the example code that they’ve used their code?

    You are not obligated to do so, so it would be a courtesy and that’s up to you.

  • Should one not use the example code at all and use the basic idea to create your own code?

    Yes, this would be a conservative and safe policy. Plus, it’s always better to understand how the code works, which you would have to in order to write code with similar functionality.

  • Is it ok to use said example code in proprietary closed-source projects?

    No. The license would require you to make your project available under the same Creative Commons Share Alike (or compatible) license.

  • Is it ok to use said example code in proprietary but internal-use-only projects?

    Technically, yes, because like GPL & LGPL, the licensing requirement only activates when you distribute a derived work. But how can you be sure that code from the internal-use-only project will never be duplicated into a product that gets distributed? Do you plan to annotate code fragments within your internal projects? I would not recommend relying on this.

  • Are the legal implications currently undefined?

    No, they are spelled out in the Creative Commons license mentioned above.

I’m posting to my blog the questions I’ve answered on StackOverflow, which earned the “Good Answer” badge. This was my answer to “What legal issues can I run into if I use example code (say from stackoverflow) in my projects?

Is This Legal?

A user recently asked a question about GPL compatibility with his company’s commercial software offerings:

I work for a software / design firm and I recently found out that our “in house” CMS is actually [based on software] licensed under the GPL Ver 2. I would like to know if it is ethical / legal to be selling this to clients.

Don’t act on any legal advice you read on a forum like StackOverflow — including mine. 🙂

Here’s a passage about GPL from Wikipedia (emphasis mine):

The terms and conditions of the GPL are available to anybody receiving a copy of the work that has a GPL applied to it (“the licensee”). Any licensee who adheres to the terms and conditions is given permission to modify the work, as well as to copy and redistribute the work or any derivative version. The licensee is allowed to charge a fee for this service, or do this free of charge. This latter point distinguishes the GPL from software licenses that prohibit commercial redistribution. The FSF argues that free software should not place restrictions on commercial use, and the GPL explicitly states that GPL works may be sold at any price.

However, if your company is distributing the software under another license not compatible with GPL, then they’re violating their license.

I’m posting to my blog the questions I’ve answered on StackOverflow, which earned the “Good Answer” badge. This was my answer to “Is This Legal? (GPL Software/ Licensing Issues)