May 15, 2008

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As in beer, and speech
A free software license primer
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

You probably don’t worry much about software licenses. If you’re like most people, when you install a new piece of software, you come to the step displaying a whole mess of legalistic text in a tiny window requiring 200 PgDn key presses to read and you say to yourself, “Whatever, just click Next as soon as it lets me.”

You probably do this whether you bought the software in a store or downloaded it, whether you paid for it or got it free. And if your intention is just to use the software on that one computer, the terms of that license don’t really make much difference in most cases.

What if you’re a developer yourself, though, and that program strikes you as so cool you want to include it, or part of it, in a project you’re working on? If it’s Photoshop or Excel, ha! Forget it. If it’s OpenOffice.org Writer — the word processor in which I’m typing this column — the story’s a bit different.

OpenOffice.org is distributed, free of charge, under the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL). It’s a modified version of the regular old GPL, the license that has allowed Linux to become the free operating system of choice for geeks the world over. The basic tenet of the GPL is that you, the user, are allowed to use, modify and share the software — as long as you allow the modifications to also be freely shared and modified. It doesn’t even necessarily restrict the right of developers to sell products based on free software, but the source code of the software must be made freely available.

The LGPL is called Lesser precisely because it doesn’t have the same “viral” impact on derivative software. Certain elements of OpenOffice.org, for example, can be used in commercial software without the requirement for the whole of that software to be open source. That concept of passing on the same rights to the users of derivative works is often referred to as “copyleft” — a pun on “copyright” that emphasizes the rights of the users rather than those of the creators.

The Free Software Foundation (www.fsf.org) maintains a list of different kinds of licenses. One group of free licenses that’s becoming increasingly popular is those by Creative Commons. As a non-profit organization, what Creative Commons offers is really a bunch of pre-written licenses for all kinds of intellectual property, from music and the written word to software. Pick the kinds of rights you want users to have and you can essentially build the appropriate license a la carte at their Web site, www.creativecommons.org.

With the bewildering array of licenses, even the limits on free software are not always obvious. Short of reading through the entire license of every program you install, you can often refer to the publisher’s Web site for a summary of what you are and aren’t allowed to do with it. Many free programs are not open source, and some are free for personal use only, meaning you’re not supposed to install it on 100 workstations at your company unless you pay.

Of course, most free software licenses are not so much enforced as they are dependent on your respect of the creator’s wishes. So please, have a little consideration.