Discussions: Hacker News.

Choosing a license has always been easy: MIT. It’s the best-known “do what you want” plain language license. Arguably ISC is slightly better, but also lesser known.

I’m not especially concerned with patents or people using my work for commercial purposes: a company using my little tool or library (with or without changes) takes away nothing from my little hobby project that I wrote for my own reasons.


But with GoatCounter things are different: I’m actually trying to make a living from it.

I still don’t really care what people do with my code, but I do care if my ability to make a living would be unreasonably impeded. Taking my MIT code and working full-time on enhancements that aren’t sent back to me means my competitor has double the amount of people working on it: me (for free, from their perspective), and them. They will always have an advantage over me.

I don’t think it’s likely this will happen, but it’s a risk I don’t really want to take.

The answer for this is “copyleft”, which requires people to send changes back to me. It still allows running an unmodified version to compete with my SaaS, which is okay: at least it won’t allow anyone to benefit from my work unfairly.

The well-known and widely used copyleft licenses from the Free Software Foundation (FSF) such as the GPL are in my opinion not very good; they’re dense and hard to read. I also don’t like the FSF as an organisation for reasons I will explain in a future post, and would prefer to avoid them when possible.

I slapped on the AGPL 3.0 because I wanted to start shipping, and not get too bogged down in these kind of license details. I recently looked for some alternative copyleft licenses. My requirements:

  • Have a copyleft which includes the so-called “network protection”, which mandates that people submit changes even if they operate the code as a service (rather than sending people binaries).

  • For practical reasons, an OSI-approved license would be best; it avoids confusion, and is a requirement for applying to various open source benefits (e.g. free or discounted services, like Netlify, BrowserStack, Google Summer of Code, etc.)

    (Aside: I don’t really like that the OSI is the One True Authority of “Open source” now; the term was around for a long time before the OSI was started[1] and there are many licenses that are perfectly fine according to the Open Source Definition, but the OSI just hasn’t approved them. See e.g. Don’t Rely on OSI Approval. But it is what it is.)

A number of projects have been experimenting with “almost open source” licenses, such as the Commons Clause. There are a number of advantages and I’m not principally opposed to this, but it’s mostly as a response to AWS and such offering your product as a service. I don’t think this will happen with GoatCounter, as it’s not this kind of “middleware” product.

Licenses

Looking at the available licenses, there are unfortunately not very many. Some notes about various licenses (not intended as a comprehensive comparison; for some I stopped after I encountered something that made it cleary unsuitable for my purposes):

GPL (any version)

  • Bad: doesn’t have the “network protection”: you don’t need to submit changes back to me if you modify the code and run it only as a SaaS.

AGPL

  • Good: Copyleft with network protection, requires badactor.com to submit code when running a SaaS.
  • Good: well known.
  • Bad: long and dense language. it’s 5174 words, which is about half an hour of reading time (probably more to properly grok it).
  • Bad: preamble needs to complain about others taking away freedom. This reads like a manifesto against commercial software, not a license. I find it unprofessional at best. It also needs to explain “free” because it stubornly uses a non-standard definition that no one else uses (sigh). As a result, it also needs to resort to uncommon words like “gratis”, making the legalese even harder to comprehend.
  • Bad: Changing it is not allowed, so I can’t change or remove parts I don’t like (such as the the preamble). On the other hand, that would make it non-OSI approved anyway.
  • Bad: some companies avoid AGPL due to its extremely “viral” nature. This could potentially be solved with some sort of dual-licensing option.
  • Bad: I don’t like that it imposes restrictions on non-commercial users. If you’re running a private GoatCounter for your personal weblog with some hacks you clobbered together then go for it! No need to send me your ugly hacks. Again, I may investigate some dual-licensing options in the future.

Common Public Attribution License 1.0 (CPAL)

  • Good: includes network protection.
  • Bad: fails Debian’s Free Software Guidelines:

    [..] the Original Developer may include [..] a requirement that each time an Executable and Source Code or a Larger Work is launched [..] a prominent display of the Original Developer’s Attribution Information [..] must occur on the graphic user interface employed by the end user [..].

Open Software License 3.0 (OSL)

  • Bad: requires “reasonable effort” to have users agree to the license on distribution (e.g. downloading source or a binary). This is just annoying.
  • Bad: fails DFSG because of overly strong patent clause.
  • Note: Didn’t investigate beyond these two issues; the attribution clause especially is not what I want.

IBM Public License Version 1.0 (IPL)

  • Bad: no network protection.
  • Good: seems like better more pragmatic GPL; may use it in the future where I would use GPL instead (but didn’t investigate in-depth, as lack of network protection makes it unsuitable here).

European Union Public License 1.2 (EUPL)

  • Good: includes network protection.
  • Good: is drafted specifically to work with EU law, and has official translations to all the EU jurisdictions, which is better for me as an EU citizen. The translations also make it easier for non-native speakers to grok the license (reading legal language hard even in your native language, and double as hard if it’s not).
  • Good: 2259 words; less half of AGPL’s 5174 words, which is probably the shortest you can get for these kind of licenses (one of the explicitly goals was to “not be too long, too complex, but be comprehensive and pragmatic”). It’s still not very easily readable, IMHO, but the translations help a bit with that.
  • Good: explicitly compatible with GPL and various other copyleft etc. This should make it much easier to re-use than e.g. the AGPL.
  • Bad: not very widely known (yet), making it harder to re-use. GitHub for example lacks a “quick overview” for the EUPL (something I’ll try and fix).
  • Bad: The text version from the official website is ugly; it seems like an automatic conversion from the PDF and has weird spacing, line breaks, etc.

    This may seem like minor issues, but I spent quite some time reformatting it so people can conveniently read it from the standard LICENSE plain text file.

    Another small practical detail is that there is no short URL to the license text (I created one at eupl12.zgo.at), which makes it annoying to link in source code.

    I’ll try and contact the maintainers to see if this can be improved.

  • Bad: Like with AGPL, I don’t like that it imposes restrictions on non-commercial users.

  • Note: OSI and FSF approved, but no judgement on DFSG compatibility (there are discussions and no one raised specific objections; I don’t expect problems).

The Parity Public License 7.0.0

  • Good: includes network protection.
  • Good: Plain readable language.
  • Bad: none of the versions are OSI-approved, FSF hasn’t published any opinion about it. In general seems to have almost no opinions published about it (yet).
  • Bad: the copyleft clause is quite strong (more so than AGPL or EUPL): “Contribute software you develop, operate, or analyze with this software”.

Reciprocal Public License 1.5 (RPL)

  • Good: includes network protection.
  • Good: has a plain-language introduction, making it clear what the requirements are without legalese.
  • Good: Makes a distinction between “personal use” and other use. The copyleft doesn’t apply for personal use.
  • Bad: Almost as long as AGPL (4957 words), although the introduction makes it more palpatable.
  • Bad: OSI-approved, but not considered “free” by FSF:

    The Reciprocal Public License is a nonfree license because of three problems. 1. It puts limits on prices charged for an initial copy. 2. It requires notification of the original developer for publication of a modified version. 3. It requires publication of any modified version that an organization uses, even privately. I’m not really principally opposed to these terms myself, though. I don’t get why the “no charge” clause is objectionable (GPL has a similar one). The requirement to notify the original developer makes sense. Waiting for me to perhaps accidentally stumble upon your changes is not in the spirit of copyleft.

  • Bad: also requires submitting changes if you never publish the software at all (“Once you start running the software you have to start sharing the software”), and requires documentation of all changes (“clearly describing the additions, changes or deletions You made”), which is probably a bit too strong.

Conclusion

The EUPL seems to have all the same provisions as the AGPL, but with several advantages. I see no reason to prefer the AGPL over the EUPL.

I like the Parity License. I think a more plain-language version of the (A)GPL is long overdue, but it’s very new and has a too strong copyleft. I don’t think it’s suitable for serious projects (yet), but I’m interested and intend to keep an eye on future developments.

The RPL is interesting, and is drafted for pretty much my exact use case. It was a strong candidate. While I’m not especially concerned about the FSF’s opinion as such, the lack of their approval does provide some practical problems and will be an issue of contention. There need to be very clear advantages in order to adopt such a “non-free” license, and I’m not sure the RPL provides them. I may change my mind about this in the future.

In the end, I decided EUPL was the best fit for now, so I relicensed GoatCounter from AGPL 3 to EUPL 1.2.

Footnotes
  1. Examples from 1993, 1996. Furthermore, the term “Open” was in wide use before the OSI (e.g. OpenBSD, X/Open, etc.)
    I’m not suggesting that Christine Peterson is lying when she claims to have coined “Open Source”; it could be coined independently on several occasions, or perhaps she had seen the term but merely forgot about it.