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On the recent surge of single-vendor open source projects switching to non-compete licensing

Two concepts from my early career seem mostly disregarded today in the wake of the popularisation of free software by the open source movement. One is software reuse; the other is source-available proprietary software.

Software reuse was a major thrust at IBM when I joined in 1990. IBM wanted its developers to reuse the work of others, but few developers were interested in learning to use someone else's approach to solving part of their problem even assuming they could find and be allowed access to the code that did it. Even within a single company, reuse without community was unwelcome; it is all the more so in a context where you may also need to negotiate rights.

I remember source-available from visits to data centres working for Burroughs (now Unisys) in the late 80s. Big piles of tapes (and later CDs) stood in the corner of machine rooms, mostly unopened. Having the source code may help some users fix their own installations, but generally the point of a paid service contract is to have experts do that for you. It seems contradictory to try to charge the people who want source – it flies in the face of the time-weathered wisdom of Mårten Mickos:

To make money on open source, you give it for free to those with more time than money, and you charge a fee from those with more money than time.

Both reuse and source-available faded from focus once open source software became dominant in the early days of the millennium. The only people mentioning either were those trying to pretend they were offering open source when their licensing said otherwise.

Blowing In From The Past

So who is interested in them today? Not software developers, who now expect the flexibility that comes from being given all the rights necessary to use, improve, share and monetise a piece of software without seeking further permission or even clarification from the copyright holders. Not software users, who want those same freedoms so they are protected from vendor control and gouging.

No, they have been rediscovered as values by rights-ratcheters looking for a sheepskin for their late-stage wolf. As well as enabling innovation and liberating users from lock-in, open source does an excellent job of driving adoption of good software. Developers will reuse it as part of their solutions and go on to fix bugs and add new capabilities. Users will deploy it with confidence and are more likely than not to spend money with experts to configure, deploy and extend it.

But that strength is open to abuse. When the control of the copyright becomes concentrated (either because a simple non-reciprocal license like MIT or BSD is in use or a copyright assignment is used by a single vendor), when the core committers are employees of a single vendor and (most importantly) when the company involved is running using borrowed money, there is a great risk that the rights-ratchet model will come into play.

Pioneered about 15 years ago by a company called SugarCRM, the rights ratchet model sees software taken through a seven stage process from fully open to fully closed, with just a ratchet-click of reduced freedoms and withdrawn rights at each step. With a flurry of new companies using open source to drive adoption at the turn of the first decade, we might expect there to have been a number of companies reaching the late stages of this model about now. Indeed, that is what has happened, with companies of that era such as MongoDB, Elastic, HashiCorp and now Redis reaching stage 6 and switching licenses in a way not generally benefiting the community. It's less a trend than an expected evolution that will pass with the model.

It is a detectable marker of the presence of the rights-ratchet model that its exploiters are keen to wrap themselves in “open” credentials. So they raise ideas from the past and attempt to re-animate them. Some even try to argue they are somehow “redefining open source”. A favourite sheepskin is the argument that they are just making open source sustainable and forcing freeloaders to pay fair shares of the cost of development.

Fair Shares?

That last argument is seductive – we all think the worker should be paid for their work, and have our own job and household as a model. But it's a mistaken view in most of these cases, just as is the political trope of comparing the budgeting of a national economy to a household budget. The whole point of open source, from day one, is that users are free to do what they want with the code and everyone involved is solely responsible for the dynamic and economics of their own involvement.

A company using an adoption-led business model understands this viscerally, and will always have a plan to accommodate it. None of the examples cited above has shown any indication of lacking sufficient funds to maintain, improve or even create a cash surplus from the project in question. Rather, every one of them has reached a point of success where they want to move on towards the next stage for their investors. After all, investors don't invest in products, they invest in exits.

So do we need a new model for open source that accommodates non-compete restrictions, as the apologists for each of these rights-ratchet changes assert? No, of course not. What we need is a way to help people know the ratchet is closing in on them so they can fork earlier.

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An interesting repeated motif in the anti-trust conference I attended yesterday in Brussels was the assertion that there is no big tech in Europe like there is in America and that Europe is sandwiched between big country (China) and big tech. The question I kept wanting to ask is “why is there nothing you recognise as 'big tech' in Europe?”

I did ask a few of the speakers this question and they seemed slightly bemused by it. The most stupid answer was someone who should know better saying Europe had spent all its energy on regulation and none of it on innovation – you may guess that was someone from the merger industry!

It's not like Europe has never had big tech. The dominant technologies in mobile phones arose from a European context and I can think of several other examples of world-monopolising technologies which have arisen in Europe in previous generations. I don't think it's overregulation either, although I defer to subject experts on that.

What I do wonder is whether the legacy big tech of the mobile & consumer electronics industries has resulted in the regulatory capture of European standards by the winners of that event, and that has led to the stifling of each new technology wave as it has commenced in Europe. What innovation has happened has then moved elsewhere to avoid the problem, usually by acquisition.

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(English)

Me presento de nuevo a la reelección para la junta de The Document Foundation (TDF) como candidato independiente. Lo más importante que necesita TDF es una visión unificadora para el futuro de #LibreOffice, la principal herramienta de preparación de documentos #OpenSource. He aquí el esbozo de una visión que propondría a los Administradores y a la Junta Directiva en caso de ser elegido, obviamente evolucionada en colaboración con ellos.

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(Español)

I am standing for re-election to the board of The Document Foundation (TDF) as an independent candidate again. The most important thing TDF needs is a uniting vision for the future of #LibreOffice, the leading #OpenSource document preparation tool. Here is the outline of a vision I would propose to the Trustees and Board if elected, obviously evolved collaboratively with them.

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If you are using an Intel-powered Chromebook, did you know you can install LibreOffice on it, as a local app? It's extremely easy!

  1. Enable the Linux subsystem and AppImage support
  2. In the Linux folder, create a folder called Applications
  3. Download the AppImage build of LibreOffice into the folder

That's it! ChromeOS will (probably) do the rest. Go to the applications menu (press the search button on the keyboard) and look in the “Linux Applications” group to launch LibreOffice. It's as easy as a Mac!

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Dear client,

Setting aside the challenges of using Zoom under ChromeOS and Linux, I have mostly been declining invitations to Zoom calls because of the terms they introduced from April 2023 in section 10 of their Terms of Service which seemed to force every user, with no opt-out to the Terms available and with recourse only via arbitration, to agree that Zoom could (whether they currently do or not):

  1. Train their AI on anything uploaded or created on Zoom (including transcripts and recordings) and use the consequent model for absolutely anything;
  2. Have indefinite and ownership-equivalent rights to do so in the future and
  3. Be indemnified by me if it turns out someone else owns the IP or has their rights infringed (for example to confidential materials everyone on the call is entitled to review).

Following public complaints they first tried to apply “you poor children don't understand” tactics and adding to the Terms to say they wouldn't do this (but leaving the terms that said they could intact), and then when that didn't fix anything they rolled back the whole thing again as if they were not using AI and it was not their fault that the whole thing happened..

Given Zoom did this once and were essentially unapologetic, they could do it again any time so I try to avoid using their service and will most likely just dial in by phone if I have to join your call.

I prefer Jitsi instead; it has equivalent functionality, is platform independent, is open source and can be self-hosted.

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A clause in a software license that says something that sounds as simple as “you must follow the law” is problematic in practice and likely to render the license unapprovable as open source. Here's why.

Sign on a gate saying "Please Leave Free To Swing"

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Graduated to a Meshed Insights article

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Of the many attributes of software freedom that could move to front-of-mind, it strikes me that the minimal license compliance burdens for open source software users are actually a comparative strength. Having them presented as a dangerous weakness by commercial interests in various contexts (what has been called “the compliance-industrial complex”) applies a “frame” that serves only the detractors of software freedom. No wonder proprietary vendors want to divert our attention! Open source is so much easier!

A woman sits strapped to the top of a bi-plane painted in US patriotic decor and about to take off

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During the discussions around European digital agenda legislation, I have frequently heard people proposing to define “open source” within a draft instrument. But that's a surprisingly difficult thing to do – it turns out that despite being a globally-understood term-of-art, capturing the whole thing in a phrase simple enough to use in a recital requires a great deal of thought and experience.

So people mostly defer to the OSI Open Source Definition, which is not designed for that purpose. This post considers three different ways to consider open source — knowing it when you see it, knowing it by its goals and knowing it by summarising its mechanism — and includes a recital-ready definition of open source for use in legislation that embodies the global consensus of its meaning.

Gold-coloured figure of a traffic policeman halting traffic, pictured on a glass surface above a keyboard

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