Everyblock, Nonprofiteering, and the Affero License

by Sebastian Benthall

Everyblock, the successful, Knight Foundation funded, open source hyperlocal journalism site, was recently acquired by MSNBC.com. This has raised some eyebrows.

First, there is the question of “whether it is ethical to take foundation money and turn around such a high profit from a corporate buy out.”

Personally, I don’t see much of a problem with this. The foundation funded innovation that is publicly available through the GPL-licensed source code. The fact that the organization that did the innovation profited from its work for the public good should be a cause for celebration, not dismay. I could see how one could have nostalgic resentment against Everyblock’s for its fall from perfectly progressive grace, but otherwise I can’t think of a reason to ethically fault anyone.

(The Knight Foundation itself may look to get more of a piece of the action in the future. In the meantime it is devoting resources to developing the community around the GPL’ed codebase, presumably to maximize the value of its social investment)

Second is the question of the EveryBlock codebase and whether it will remain licensed as open source.

Adrian Holovaty, Everyblock founder, has announced with clarity that “The code as released on June 30 will continue to be available” (emphasis mine), which seems to imply a real possibility of closed fork. Software Freedom Law Center’s James Vasile points out that if Everyblock got all contributors to sign over copyright, then MSNBC.com could do a legally closed fork. But otherwise, Everyblock could run an effectively closed fork of their code because the GPL only requires code to be released if the software is distributed; but Everyblock’s code is instead primarily accessed as a web service.

These issues come up a lot for me personally as I am involved in incubating open source projects with OpenGeo. In particular, Vasile offers some advice that strikes me as unwise:

[I]f you contribute code to a project, don’t sign over copyrights unless the project agrees to always (or only) release code under a free license like AGPLv3. More to the point, if a company holds most of the copyrights in a set of code and controls what goes into the codebase, they can usually close its source over time.

My understanding is that diffuse copyright ownership may make it harder to change the license of open source software. But sometimes, change can be a good thing–for example when Wikipedia switched from the GFDL to a Creative Commons license. In addition, I’ve been told that having many people holding copyright on a project makes it harder to enforce the terms of the license.

From my own (admittedly conflicted) open source business logic perspective, full ownership of copyright also allows for proprietary dual licensing which, in the hands of a noble organization (like OpenGeo!), could be used to funnel money back into the development community. The safest, most reliable option for copyright ownership that I’ve heard of is entrusting copyright to a open source software foundation like OSGeo.

The other implication of the Everyblock acquisition is that the GPL is essentially a permissive license in the world where everything is a web service. The GNU Affero GPL (AGPL) closes that loophole by requiring those that host a web service make their AGPL licensed code available to their network (which, in the most relevant case, is the entire internet).

Thinking this sounded like a good thing to keep in mind, and recalling OpenGeo’s policy of preferring the more restrictive GPL to “applications” like GeoServer (and more permissive licenses to “libraries” like OpenLayers and GeoExt), I suggested yesterday that we have foresight and apply the AGPL to our new project, the GeoNode (which, like Everyblock, is a mapping application built using Django and OpenLayers, along with the rest of the OpenGeo stack)

To my surprise, there was some backlash against the idea. The immediate response from one colleague was that we should adopt it “only if we don’t want any collaborators,” that it was “way too restrictive and polarizing,” and a “bastion of extremism.” Since it doesn’t seem to go beyond the intent of the GPL, but rather just updates it to contemporary computing conditions, I don’t see the big deal. (The colleague mentioned that the GPL didn’t bother him as much.) So word on the street is that the AGPL is scary and somehow deters developers, even casual ones, who would otherwise be fine using the GPL. I’d be interested to hear others thoughts on the matter.

I bet that as more cases like Everyblock bring the limitations of the GPL to light, we’ll see more open source web developers come out of the woodwork against viral licensing. For me, this is further reason to think that open source needs an updated and compelling re-articulation of its values, because its going to soon be involved again in a struggle that is more cultural than technical.

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