I Don't Care about Google's Source Code

by chromatic

The discussion turned, as it occasionally does, to licensing and philosophy. (This is what happens when you hang out with smart people who also care about the subject.) I may have surprised a couple of them by saying, fire-breathing zealot for freedom that I am, that I don't particularly care about the mythical software as a service loophole.)

Why not?


2007-08-23 07:09:36
"Mythical" is a good way to say it. I don't care about that one either. So you are not alone.
Levitating man
2007-08-23 11:47:44
Of course users don't care about this. I don't know why you thought it was worth pointing out. Users don't care if the software is written in Haskell or C++. They also don't care whether the developers of software are vegetarian or if they drive SUVs.

The issue is ENTIRELY about the relationship between these companies and the open-source community. Specifically, it is about companies side-stepping the spirit of the license and not making contributions back to the community that developed the software they use for profit. It's not another discussion, it's the only discussion.

2007-08-23 11:56:20
@Levitating man, what does profit have to do with anything? I don't care about the commercial value of software I release under a free license. Is that not in line with the spirit of the license?
Levitating man
2007-08-23 12:14:46
Okay, so you wouldn't care how your code was used, and that's fine for you - if you've created the software, you should be able to define the terms of its use. So you would release your code under a license that does not ask for return contributions.

But many of these communities DO care how their code is used. You are correct in saying that profit doesn't really matter - the fact that somebody is making money off their work without any recompense is a slap in the face, but it is incidental to the issue. They really want their work and derivatives of it to be free and open. That is the spirit of the license.

2007-08-23 12:24:37
Specifically, it is about companies side-stepping the spirit of the license and not making contributions back to the community that developed the software they use for profit.

I see that argument and understand your point of view with it but I don't agree with you on it. Sorry.

2007-08-23 12:26:13
"I don't particularly care what software my accountant, dentist, insurance agent, barber, or mechanic uses"

Hmmmm. You WILL care if you go in for LASIK surgery, or very soon a knee operation. Both of those 'services' depend heavily on the use of computer code for which the supervising practitioner has little control over and even less review of. Yet one will control the laser wave stream that reshapes your cornea. The other to soon control a microsurgey robot to repair tendons. And you don't care?

2007-08-23 12:29:23
@Levitating man, any software license that puts conditions upon its use is in violation of the Open Source Definition, specifically point 6 (and perhaps point 10, but it's more difficult to argue that one).

Copyleft licenses only come into play during distribution -- and I'm arguing that in Google's case, there's no distribution of software, merely a service.

2007-08-23 12:41:04
@johnmc, I care if the process works and if the service is at the level of quality I expect. I don't care about the license to the software or if they use software at all.
Levitating man
2007-08-23 12:51:23
"Copyleft licenses only come into play during distribution"

Well, that's the loophole, isn't it? These companies are creating derivative works that aren't free or open by making their software available as a service instead of a distribution.

2007-08-23 13:01:17
@Levitating man, that's only a problem if you believe that creating derivative works is in and of itself against the spirit of a copyleft license.

It's also difficult to prove that anyone who's not redistributing the code has created a derivative work, not to mention very difficult to use copyright law to force all undistributed derivative works to send their changes upstream.

It's fine with me if someone chooses not to take advantage of any or all of the four freedoms of software. It's not fine with me if the recipient of copyleft software redistributes it but tries to withhold any of those freedoms from recipients.

Simon Hibbs
2007-08-23 13:21:53
Levitating Man: "But many of these communities DO care how their code is used."

Some people in those comunities suffer from the delusion that it's their business, but it isn't. Accountants make money from using OpenOffice.org, but that's their business and nobody else's. Linux might be used in guded missiles, but if it is that's no business of Linus's. Free software is about freedom for the user, and services companies are users.

2007-08-23 14:44:06
honestly, anybody who has given serious thought to the "argument" has already drawn a line in the sand. so i don't write the following to convince anybody, or to poke holes in their argument, but to explain my viewpoint to those who are new to this and trying to reason their way through it.

in a web service, i am the user. if by using that web service i am directly interfacing copylefted software that the service provider refuses to redistribute the source code for, then my free software rights are being violated.

alice writes an online rss reader in php. i host a tweaked copy of alice's software on my own website (for myself, family, & friends). bob takes alice's software, modifies it, and runs it on his website for public use (making money off online advertising). i like bob's improvements and begin using it while recommending that all my users export their feeds (as opml) and migrate to bob's service.

what happens if bob shuts down his website (but gives everybody a chance to export their rss feeds)? what happens if a new website's rss feed exposes bugs in the software's rss parser, which alice fixes in the upstream version, but i can't integrate into bob's version that i'm using (or host myself because bob won't release his modifications for me to apply to alice's fixed version)?

the only "service" bob is providing me is access to his copy of the service. yes, technically he's providing me bandwidth, storage space, processing power, etc, but i'm willing to provide all that myself (and did before migrating myself and everybody else to his version). as a user of alice's free software, which bob improved and uses for his service, bob has deprived me of all four freedoms (run, adapt, redistribute, & improve).

if bob is my accountant, then i don't care what modifications he has made to his copy of openoffice (or contracted someone else to make), because i don't use bob's modified version of it. if bob is the owner of an internet cafe around the corner selling access to an improved version of firefox, then i care. if tivo is selling me an appliance with a linux kernel (which i want to apply low power patches to for in-car use, reducing heat and current draw), then i care about that too.

so that's the "software as a service" loophole that i care about (without even denying access to the data). and as a bonus, i threw in tivoization. ;-)

2007-08-23 14:58:49

in a web service, i am the user.

You're a user of the service, yes--but not the software.

Otherwise, you might as well telnet to my mail server, type HELO, and then ask me for its source code.

What you get when you access a web service is the output of that program, which is not copylefted simply by virtue of the program itself being copylefted.

2007-08-23 19:19:20
I only really care so far as Google is making use of existing open source and not returning patches to the original software authors. If they've made significant upgrades to existing software then these changes could be useful to other users. For software that they've written themselves I don't really care about seeing the code. They'll only hurt themselves by hiding their code as it encourages others to replicate their work. In a completely transparent environment the benefit goes to the originator of the code so long as they keep the communities respect. There is no such benefit if you have closed code that does something nifty but Joe dwn the street clones the funcionality in his own open code and starts selling support. It's just a matter of time before someone else figures out what Google has already figured out.
Zakhariah Fairfax
2007-09-03 02:27:28
Let’s generalise “source code” and call it “process.”

You may not personally care about the process. But since you do care about correctness, security and privacy, then you probably care that the process is transparent and can be analysed independently; if not by you, then by an organisation representing your interests.

For example, you would not buy home appliances/electronics whose workings had not been independently tested by a public product safety agency. Why adopt a different stance for open source? Why settle for the current situation in which the producer takes precedence over the consumer?

Corporate process secrets hurt consumers by impeding their ability to make informed product choices. They also hurt consumers by preventing the competition from improving the product, or providing the same service at a better price. How can the fundamental goal of the free market (the “perfect” products at the “perfect” prices) emerge in an environment like this?