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free software actually costs something

ghuntley profile image Geoffrey Huntley Updated on ・3 min read

🙌 I’m Geoff, an open software producer and maintainer. I’m responsible for authoring and maintaining tools that enable developers to deliver business value faster and easier.

Anyway I've been thinking about the topic of open-source licensing for a while now. It's clear that software actually costs something, and that even though it may be offered freely, somebody is paying the cost — I'm no longer willing to be the payor.

As such I'm switching to dual-licensing under the License Zero Prosperity Public License, the License Zero Patron License. The Prosperity License limits commercial use to a 32 day trial period, after which license fees must be paid to obtain a Patron License.

A Patron License can be obtained by making regular payments through GitHub Sponsors, in amounts qualifying for a tier of rewards that includes “patron licenses”. A Patron License grants qualifying patrons permission to ignore any noncommercial or copyleft rules in all of my License Zero Prosperity licensed software.

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A License Zero Waiver may also be granted waiving the non-commercial clause of the Prosperity License without requiring a Patron License. These are granted on a case-by-case basis to friends, family, repeat contributors, folks who do good things in their community and usually when the person requesting one makes a compelling case about why the non-commercial clause shouldn’t apply to them.

Open software producers are vastly outnumbered by open software consumers. I think it's time to introduce adoption friction whilst reducing payment friction and search for the answer to this question:

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Now you might be thinking - “but this isn’t actually open source”

You’re correct, at least for the “official” definition of open source. Both the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative explicitly exclude software that contains limits on use from the definition of “open source”. For this reason, the Prosperity License my projects use is not, and likely never will be, an OSI-approved license.

I think this definition of open source is in need of some reality checks. Without getting into too much detail, the open source community has a sustainability problem. As projects grow in size many maintainers burn-out or find themselves unable to satisfy increasing support and maintenance demands. Finding reliable, well-defined funding sources is extremely challenging (donations simply don’t work for the vast majority of projects) and while funding isn’t the only or exclusive way to address open source sustainability, it’s certainly one component of an overall approach. As a community if we’re going to try and improve the sustainability of the projects we rely on, and the health of their maintainers, then we have to expand the umbrella of open source to allow that maybe, just maybe, compensating maintainers for the large amount of time they dedicate to creating those projects, and placing restrictions on the use of those projects as an enforcement mechanism, isn’t such a bad idea.

For more information about these licensing changes (inc "why not use copyleft" and "this isn’t actually open source") head on over to https://ghuntley.com/licensing/

If you found this article insightful, why not buy me a cup of ☕ over at https://ghuntley.com/tipjar. GitHub will match your contribution!

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ghuntley profile

Geoffrey Huntley

@ghuntley

🙌 I’m Geoff, an open source software engineer. I’m responsible for authoring and maintaining tools that enable software developers deliver business value faster and easier.

Discussion

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The thing is, the term "Open Source" is a registered and protected trademark of the Open Source Initiative, primarily as a means of ensuring that the popular term can only be applied to OSI-compliant projects.

Last I checked, "Free Software" is also a trademark belonging to the Free Software Foundation, for the same reason.

It's a little like protecting the term "organic," so non-organic food manufacturers can't use it falsely. (Side note, "organic" hasn't been very well regulated on that front, but that's beside the point.)

So, while you can call your project "freeware", "shareware", "donation ware", "source available", you may not use the terms "Open Source" or "Free Software" unless you are complying with the official terms thereof. Otherwise, you can wind up in some mighty hot water legally. (And yes, they have lawyers.)

If you want your own flavor of the concept, apart from the OSI and/or FSF, you're going to have to come up with your own name.

EDIT: I misread something a while back. "Open Source" as it were is not trademarked, although the OSI logo and name are.


Dual-licensing is entirely possible while being OSI and FSF compliant; that's what Qt does! The GPL and LGPL and very well suited to dual-licensing scenarios, as they have the restrictions needed to protect the software from unauthorized proprietary abuse, but keeps it completely open for studying, open source development, and modification.

 

The thing is, the term "Open Source" is a registered and protected trademark of the Open Source Initiative, (...) can only be applied to OSI-compliant projects.

Do you have any reference for this? My understanding was that OSI didn't acquire the trademark to "Open Source" and all the background I've been able to find calls out that there's no applicable trademark (nor likely to be) registered with WIPO.

 

Ah, my apologies. I misread something, but you are correct. "Open Source" as it were is not trademarked, although the OSI name and mark are.

 

Shareware? That was popular in the 1990s, but also not sustainable as a licensing model. The cost (to the producer) of maintaining and policing the license is not nothing either.

Also, better not include any Open Source projects in your Shareware product, that's as illegal as the people who will delleberately (and accedentally) pirate yours.

 

Shareware? That was popular in the 1990s, but also not sustainable as a licensing model.

Never said it was sustainable.

Also, better not include any Open Source projects in your Shareware product, that's as illegal as the people who will delleberately (and accedentally) pirate yours.

Actually, that depends on the license. MIT License, BSD-3, and many others don't have any rules against commercial use of their code. Some require attribution, others don't. So long as you're respecting the license terms, you can absolutely use Open Source code in your shareware product.

Using code licensed under the GPL (or, in some cases, the LGPL) in your shareware product, that's another topic entirely.

 

Just call it „disclosed source software“ then 😎

 

"Free as in speech, not free as in beer"

People should use "gratis" instead of "free" when they mean "no price tag". Other languages don't have this issue, as free is only related to freedom and not to gratis. Some people even opted by using the term Libre Software.
This tiny linguistic issue is a major problem. People, and companies, see free software both as something for which you do not have to pay (at all) but do expect all the services you would get for paid software; and they see it as worthless.

Free Software never meant not being able to charge people for it. Straight from the GPL FAQ:

Does the GPL allow me to sell copies of the program for money?
Yes, the GPL allows everyone to do this. The right to sell copies is part of the definition of free software. Except in one special situation, there is no limit on what price you can charge. (The one exception is the required written offer to provide source code that must accompany binary-only release.)

 

Now you might be thinking - “but this isn’t actually open source”

Technically, I'm thinking "this isn't free software" which is more relevant since that's what you put in the post title, and that "free software" has never been about the money.

A Patron License grants qualifying patrons permission to ignore any noncommercial or copyleft rules.

It sounds like you're saying you want to dual-licence your software, which is fine, common, and people have been doing it for decades. A lot of developers (usually those run as a company) have GPL or "community" editions of their software and also provide the exact same thing under commercial licenses.