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AGPL v3 Touches Web Services

Written By: josh chalifour
Published On: November 20 2007

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) issued a press release on its newly published Affero General Public License (AGPL) version 3. This license affects the modification and distribution of software oriented toward Web-based services.

The popular adoption of Web-based applications as an alternate to in-house software implementations has meant that free and open source software developed for web-based usage can be picked up by companies outside of the ones that originally developed the software, modify it, and foist it upon the world as a new business without necessarily contributing the modifications back to the project. That is a bone of contention for many.

Last year, Tim O'Reilly posted about open source architecture in the context of Web 2.0
"...in the PC era, you have to distribute software in order to get other people to use it. You can distribute it in binary form or you can distribute it in source form, but no one escapes the act of distribution. And when software is distributed, open source companies have proven that giving access to the source makes good business strategy.

But in the world of Web 2.0, applications never need to be distributed. They are simply performed on the internet's global stage. What's more, they are global in scope, often running on hundreds or thousands or even hundreds of thousands of servers..."

From the developers' perspective it means that you may have a competitor profiting from your work without the mutually beneficial reciprocity normally expected via FOSS methods. Suppose your company develops a web-based CRM application. Your strategy is to release the code under a FOSS license because you believe that the community you organize around this software will enable you to improve more quickly and with greater innovations for your customers (or maybe you have some other reason--doesn't much matter what it is). Some other companies pick up the code, set up their businesses to provide the same services through the Web, as would be expected, and in so doing modify the code in some nice ways. Note, software is not distributed itself, it's delivered as a web service.

In other words, the clients of the secondary companies benefit from the modifications and the code your company originally developed but the "rising tide" effect of FOSS development is neglected. As a Web-based service, the companies providing their own CRM service with the application aren't required to release their modifications back to the community, so the company that originated the application wouldn't benefit from the FOSS community in the same way that the non-Web-based app developer would. That's a potentially big minus in incentives for developing web-based apps, FOSS-style.

If I understand correctly, the AGPL changes that situation. It puts web-based software usage onto a footing, which is more parallel to installed software usage. The AGPL is essentially the same license as the most recent GPL (with its patent-oriented concerns, etc.) except if you look particularly at section 13 you'll notice that it requires offering the application's modified code to people that interact with the application over a network. So this returns the ability to access, modify, and further distribute the code of even Web applications.

As this license gets used, I bet we'll hear of unexpected uses for applications that were intended as web-based services, but that get implemented inside of a company instead (just because the code was available).
 
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