Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Archive for June, 2015

You can learn a lot from people’s terminology

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

The Mailpile project has been soliciting feedback on the licensing of their product, but I couldn’t let one of the public responses go by without some remarks. Once upon a time, as many people may remember, a disinformation campaign was run by Microsoft to attempt to scare people away from copyleft licences, employing insensitive terms like “viral” and “cancer”. And so, over a decade later, here we have an article employing the term “viral” liberally to refer to copyleft licences.

Now, as many people already know, copyleft licences are applied to works by their authors so that those wishing to contribute to the further development of those works will do so in a way that preserves the “share-alike” nature of those works. In other words, the recipient of such works promises to extend to others the privileges they experienced themselves upon receiving the work, notably the abilities to see and to change how it functions, and the ability to pass on the work, modified or not, under the same conditions. Such “fair sharing” is intended to ensure that everyone receiving such works may be equal participants in experiencing and improving the work. The original author is asking people to join them in building something that is useful for everyone.

Unfortunately, all this altruism is frowned upon by some individuals and corporations who would prefer to be able to take works, to use, modify and deploy them as they see fit, and to refuse to participate in the social contract that copyleft encourages. Instead, those individuals and corporations would rather keep their own modifications to such works secret, or even go as far as to deny others the ability to understand and change any part of those works whatsoever. In other words, some people want a position of power over their own users or customers: they want the money that their users and customers may offer – the very basis of the┬áviability of their precious business – and in return for that money they will deny their users or customers the opportunity to know even what goes into the product they are getting, never mind giving them the chance to participate in improving it or exercising control over what it does.

From the referenced public response to the licensing survey, I learned another term: “feedstock”. I will admit that I had never seen this term used before in the context of software, or I don’t recall its use in such a way, but it isn’t difficult to transfer the established meaning of the word to the context of software from the perspective of someone portraying copyleft licences as “viral”. I suppose that here we see another divide being erected between people who think they should have most of the power (and who are somehow special) and the grunts who merely provide the fuel for their success: “feedstock” apparently refers to all the software that enables the special people’s revenue-generating products with their “secret ingredients” (or “special sauce” as the author puts it) to exist in the first place.

It should be worrying for anyone spending any time or effort on writing software that by permissively licensing your work it will be treated as mere “feedstock” by people who only appreciate your work as far as they could use it without giving you a second thought. To be fair, the article’s author does encourage contributing back to projects as “good karma and community”, but then again this statement is made in the context of copyleft-licensed projects, and the author spends part of a paragraph bemoaning the chore of finding permissively-licensed projects so as to not have to contribute anything back at all. If you don’t mind working for companies for free and being told that you don’t deserve to see what they did to your own code that they nevertheless couldn’t get by without, maybe a permissive licence is a palatable choice for you, but remember that the permissive licensing will most likely be used to take privileges away from other recipients: those unfortunates who are paying good money won’t get to see how your code works with all the “secret stuff” bolted on, either.

Once upon a time, Bill Gates remarked, “A lot of customers in a sense don’t want — the notion that they would go in and tinker with the source code, that’s the opposite of what’s supposed to go on. We’re supposed to give that to them and it’s our problem to make sure that it works perfectly and they rely on us.” This, of course, comes from a man who enjoys substantial power through accumulation of wealth by various means, many of them involving the denial of choice, control and power to others. It is high time we all stopped listening to people who disempower us at every opportunity so that they can enrich themselves at our expense.