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GNU Affero GPL version 3 and the "ASP loophole"

A few months ago I posted my initial impressions for a draft version of the GPLv3 license, and I am happy to say that as with other licenses developed with community input, the then-good GPLv3 has continued to improve. As I read the "final" draft version of GPLv3, which I think is truly excellent, I thought about the discussions from last year about some other licenses submitted to the license-discuss@opensource.org mailing list. In particular, I thought about licenses that attempt to live the values of open source in the following context: a developer writes and releases code that's useful as a web service. But because a use of the web service does not, itself, result in making a "distribution" of software, neither the GPL nor any other open source license guarantees (1) to users the freedom to read, modify, or share the code providing the web service, nor (2) that the developer has any guarantee that if others have made changes to their software, that they can themselves gain access to such changes. Thus the developer may confront a new competitor who can download, read, and modify their code the provide a competing web service (which the open source model does encourage) but then not release either the modifications or the derivative work (which the open source model does not permit). What's happening? And what should happen?

There are some who argue that we've gone far past the point of usefulness of reciprocal licenses like the GPL. I don't agree, but the argument is that it is so clearly beneficial to open one's sources to the innovative potential of the community that the developer who chooses to hoard (out of fear, mostly) is just being stupid and will ultimately lose becuase they'll have a higher cost basis and achieve a lower quality result than the developer who courageously chooses to practice sharing whether or not others are legally compelled to do so.

There are others who argue that the source cannot be protected by source alone--that the limitations of the license must reach beyond copyright and into the operation (or at least the look and feel) of the application itself. If they cannot force all freely licensed works to point back to the initial developer, they are not willing to share sources.

I think the GNU Affero GPL version 3 license walks a firm middle ground, and I would like to see it tested in the marketplace of ideas and commerce. I would like to see whether and how the Affero license balances the interests of developers and users for the benefit of both, while encouraging healthy competition that also benefits the original developer and the whole user community. If you plan to use the GNU Affero GPL license, please let me know so that I can write about how well this experiment works! And thank you.

Comments

Hi Michael, I'm working on an open source accounting and bookkeeping software project called "PBooks", and plan to release the software under the AGPLv3. I've been holding off publishing the code until the AGPL v3 is final and published, because I'm not sure if I release it now under the AGPL version 1, whether or not I can change the license later on. I'm under the impression that if licensed under the AGPL v1, it will always be licensed that way, but future versions (of the new code anyway) could be licensed differently. On the other hand, would the new code be considered a modification and thus be required to be available under the AGPLv1? This legal stuff makes my head spin. :-) The licensing delay has given me the time to compare what I've created with the many other open source accounting software projects that either stalled in development, or ended up with some wacky functionality or licensing scheme that didn't fit my needs. At the same time, I'm working to simplify and streamline everything having to do with PBooks, so that others who find it will be able to easily modify it to fit their vision. I foresee the following scenarios: * Small-to-large businesses that are tech savvy can take the code, modify it, integrate it into their operations, not make the service publicly available (or distribute it), and thus not have to worry about their changes. * Hosting companies that offer small business services like email, blogs, and web services in general could use the code but would be required to publish their modifications to PBooks under the same open source license. * Financial companies, like banks, that offer online banking and related services could offer the software as a service to their customers. I would also like to require these businesses to publish their modifications under the same open source license. Alternatively, they could purchase a commercial license for a fee, and not be required to publish their modifications. Many of these potential customers would also involve value-added "resellers", who I would like to require to publish their modifications, or pay for commercial licenses. It is ironic that in all likelihood, it will be the first category that ends up contributing the most to the project. After that, it would most likely be the hosting companies who would then "spread the word" about such a project, and it is questionable whether banks would consider using a product with any open source limitations at all. I imagine that banking customers would prefer the fee-based alternative for a license with a more commercial and private focus. It is because of the potential for a dual-license that I'll either require contributors to assign their copyrights to my company, or not accept contributions at all. That is not to say that the modifications would not be required to be published under the open source license, it just means that my company wouldn't be selling licenses to them! Furthermore, I'm planning the integration of plug-ins, which could work with PBooks and to a limited degree modify its behavior. Those plug-ins would of course have no licensing restrictions at all. I believe that the AGPLv3 is the right license for PBooks, and eagerly await the finalized version. Feel free to contact me about the project and the our use of the license at any time in the future. I've been working on it for almost three years, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. From, Albert http://www.pbooks.org/

Hi Michael, My teammates and I are developing a web control panel for the OpenVZ virtualization tool. We will be releasing under AGPLv3. Is there hope for OSI approving this license? Thanks, Aleksandr Levchuk https://mwamko.org

The OSI is waiting for somebody to submit the AGPLv3 for approval so that we can review it.

"I think the GNU Affero GPL version 3 license walks a firm middle ground, and I would like to see it tested in the marketplace of ideas and commerce." -- take a look at http://www.rule2gether.com/ might be a good start...