Freedom in Web Applications

by Eric Larson

It is interesting to see the progression of free software along side the proliferation of the web. When I first started programming, I got involved with a web CMS I used in my contract work. I would write a new plugin or feature along with migrating a design to the software and afterwords, I would try to contribute it back. One time, the designer I was working with asked me to remove some of the project branding as well as a GPL notice on the login page. Some of the community found out and a rather long dialog started regarding whether or not I had violated the licensing. In the end, I came to compromise with the original author and we all moved on.

I still think I was right. I contacted the FSF about the issue and they confirmed my evaluation. My argument was that users of the site were not the same as users of the software. My clients had access to the source code and they were free to change it however they wished. I considered the client the actual users of the software. My removing of GPL licensing information from being visible in the login HTML did not limit or restrict the users freedom in any way and I continued to include the same copyright notices in the source of the page. Needless to say, while I disagreed with the author's perspective, I had no problem coming to a compromise. The whole situation was far from heated and I personally think it was a healthy dialog for the community.

My situation made it clear there were still questions to be answered in terms of free software on the web. It seems the AGPL is one answer for this kind of problem and there are some folks actively promoting it as a means of distributing web based free software. While, I think the terms (as I understand them) of the AGPL would not work for something like a CMS, the concept of providing software over a network and considering the output as licensed has its value.

The best thing about the AGPL is that it provides a licensing option to help provide free software on the web in a similar way the GPL effected desktop software. I don't think many web developers have thought about web applications in the same light as desktop applications. Installation challenges, database dependencies and server requirements have all made running web applications something left for developers and advanced users. Fortunately, server software is becoming common place and programming languages like Ruby and Python are helping smooth over the issues with distribution and deployment. It is good to know that as web applications continue to evolve, free software will evolve with it.