In search of Freeware licences that are NOT open source.

Warning, this is going to be a very geeky and somewhat rantish post.

As I vowed a little while ago, I’ve been making progress on some programming to-do items, including fixing up some programs for the Alphasmart Dana that I want to post for free download. I’ve got the manual for one program done and the other nearly ready, and I wanted to include a very brief legal licence that laid out the requirements I had for people who downloaded the package, mostly:

  • If you distribute the program anywhere, keep my name attached to it as the author
  • If you distribute the program anywhere, keep the manual and this licence with it.
  • Don’t sell it or charge anybody anything for the download.

I looked for examples of this kind of thing, but didn’t have that much luck. I found some licence examples that were evidently designed to represent a deal between two established parties, as opposed to a somewhat open-ended contract between me and whoever ends up downloading it. And I found an awful lot of template licences for ‘free software’ or ‘open source’.

Now, those are not the same thing as freeware. Freeware means that the program is free to use, but implies nothing about being able to see how the mechanics of it work, or being able to improve it yourself. I like a lot of things about the free software/open source concept, but I’m not a huge fan of it; I guess I’d want to make the decision on whether to release something as open source or not on a case by case basis, unless I was building off something else that was open source, in which case the deal is usually ‘if you improve this, then what you make with it is open source too’, and that seems fair.

For these Alphasmart programs, I just don’t want to deal with open source right now, especially because I used a software development environment that isn’t free, so if I did release it as open source I could just picture some open source fanatic telling me off for the fact that he can’t use my free source code without paying somebody for the development environment. I don’t really have a problem with sharing my source code, but I’d rather talk to the people who are interested in seeing it, and if there’s some really good reason that it HAS to be open source to merge with an existing open source project, then I can always re-release it on that basis later.

So, I eventually found out about Creative Commons, which sounded like what I wanted – they have a tool where you can enter what kind of content licence you want, and they provide a licence to match it. So I set up an ‘Attribution No-Derivs Non-Commercial’ licence, and that seemed good.

Until I found out that Creative Commons doesn’t recommend using their licence for software, on the grounds that they’re not compatible with most open source licence standards, and instead suggests a couple of prominent open source/free software licences.

There seems to be this kind of preconception there that ‘Of course you want to be open source – that’s the point, isn’t it?’ and it really pisses me off. I even found it stated outright in this blog post from last year:

“f you use a Creative Commons License your software probably won’t be free software/ open source software, and therefore won’t be re-usable by others including developers (which is what you want right?)

No, that’s not what I want!

I don’t want other developers to necessarily be free to study it or evolve other programs for it. I just want people to be free to use the program as it currently stands.

There are certain elements of the Open Source community who seem to be single-minded to the point of bullying when it comes to this point, and that annoys me. So the plan, at this point, is to go ahead with Creative Commons.

It’s a bit funny – most authors would never stand for it, if there were people telling them that they should release their work for free, and allow anybody who wanted to the chance to edit their words, cut one storyline, change which lover a character ended up with, and then republish it. Why is the situation so different with software? 🙂

5 Responses to In search of Freeware licences that are NOT open source.

  1. As I was reading your post I kept thinking, “Creative Commons!” “Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs!” I futzed around a lot on the music branch of Creative Commons, back when I was messing around with podcasting.

    Then I got to the part where you explored Creative Commons as an option. Huh! I still say that it’s the curve of best fit. Just because Creative Commons doesn’t recommend using their stuff for software, doesn’t mean it doesn’t make the most sense for you in this situation. You’re not muddying the entire Creative Commons waters by using a license when it suits your purpose.

    Creative Commons works beautifully for music, where someone who remixes a piece might indeed change the whole tone of it, combine it with other pieces, and produce something awesome. It’s like call and response.

    It might work well for some kinds of literature, but yeah, we writers are a testy lot when it comes to our stuff. (Though I recently have run into someone who wants to write fanfic based on one of my stories, and I have to say….awesome!!)


  2. avatar139 says:

    Interesting post, but I think you’re confusing one basic point here that you’re not getting about FLOSS licenses and that is that It’s Free as in Freedom, not Free as in Free Beer.

    In fact the GPL does allow you to charge money for your program, you just have to make sure you providing the source code somehow, that’s the only real restriction:

    One other thing I would say about this post is that I find your closing point about authors rather amusing given the fact that we initially met through our involvement in the Roswell fanfiction community.

    I mean, when writing your fan-derivative works, aren’t you prohibited from charging anything while “cutting one storyline, changing which lover a character ended up with, and then republishing it?” 😉


  3. Rek says:

    I am not a geek and while I tend to use freeware, don’t really know the dynamics that go behind its creation. CC seems a good enough choice…some desperate authors do changed their stories to please their editors.


  4. stusharp says:

    Isn’t the presumed difference between software and writing that writing is meant to represent a single artistic expression, whereas a piece of software is progressing towards the most effective fulfillment of a computing need? The one is about the aesthetic choices made by an author, which necessarily cannot be changed, while the other is about achieving the best fit for the job. Of course, if your goal is that your software should remain as you design it, then it is a simple matter to include that in any license.


    • avatar139 says:

      Very good point, but the problem with retaining the right not to share for individually designed software is twofold:

      First, no matter innocuous the software is that you make and even if you distribute freely, there is always the chance, however unlikely that someone will decide you to sue for it.

      Now to be fair, since Chris is in Canadia (don’t ask 😉 he doesn’t really have to worry about that, but at the rate we are rapidly descending into Fascism here in the good old U.S. of A., it becomes a priority to unite against the dangers of protectionism as practiced through patent trolling and I think one of the best ways to do that is by encouraging the sharing source code.

      Hence, if one company tries to sue a successful open source project, it endangers the community and the community can unite to fight back any litigation attempts, but the price of that protection is contributing via coding solutions and development techniques that can be redistributed for the benefit of anyone who could potentially gain from use of them in the future.

      I don’t think there’s a software developer in the world who can honestly claim that they haven’t gained at least some of their knowledge from sort of developer community resource or reused code from a project, so I reject the notion that you should somehow be able to claim exemption from contributing back.

      The second reason I view properitization of any form as dangerous is simply because I view any attempt to lock down knowledge sharing and collaboration (through the use of restricted software libraries and proprietary development environments and languages) as uncomfortably reminiscent of Newspeak:

      A lot of criticism (some, as much it pains me to admit it, not without merit) has been leveled against the internet and the metaphor of it being the Wild West is often used in a pejorative sense accurate, but personally, I’ll take the Wild West over a corporate Oceania-equivalent any day!


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