is a highly popular
and capable content management system oriented toward the publication of
weblogs. It is written in Perl, and is necessarily distributed in source
form. It has never, however, been free software. Its license did not
allow distribution of modified versions, though patches could be
distributed. As a whole, the license was "free enough," and Movable Type
developed a large, happy user base.
That user base is rather less pleased now. With the announcement
of Movable Type 3.0 came the news that, for all but the smallest,
personal sites, use of the new version would require a paid license. Six
Apart Ltd., the company which owns Movable Type, has since learned what
happens when you upset thousands of people, each of whom has a personal
printing press. Many online commenters have expended countless electrons
on criticism of Six Apart and its new license.
We'll not join them. Six Apart owns its code, and sets the terms for its
use. The company is behaving no worse than any other proprietary software
vendor, and better than many. One might argue it should have made its new
licensing plans clear before inviting beta testers to help them finish 3.0,
but that's about it.
What Six Apart has done is to provide an object lesson in the perils of
"almost free" software. If you do not have the right to run, modify, and
redistribute a program, you will, eventually, find yourself in a situation
where that program loses its value to you. If its owner fails to maintain
it, nobody else can. If its owner imposes an onerous license, your only
options are to take it or leave it. Source-available proprietary software
can be deceptive; it feels much like free software. But every such package
is another MT 3.0 waiting to happen.
Consider, for example, the case of qmail. It is, beyond doubt, a
powerful and secure mail transfer agent. It is distributed in source form.
But it also comes with a non-free license which forbids distribution of
modified versions, and which makes the distribution of binary packages
difficult. There has not been a new qmail release since June, 1998.
Patches are required to get it to build on a modern Linux distribution, and
others are needed to bring it up to the level of functionality needed by
many sites. But, due to the redistribution restrictions, nobody can take
over qmail maintenance and release a new version.
That notwithstanding, many sites (LWN included, it should be said) have
chosen to run qmail. But all such users should bear in mind that qmail's
license terms are, at best, vague; the software itself comes with no
explicit license. If qmail's author were ever to proclaim a new license,
it would be hard for users to prove that any other terms had ever been in
force. Even without that sort of problem, it seems pretty clear that
qmail's author has long since lost interest in working on the code; the
chances of there ever being another qmail release appear small.
The Movable Type episode has shown, once again, that licenses really do
matter. A free software license represents a sort of gift from a developer
to users: those users will never be deprived of the right to use, modify,
and distribute the covered software. Developers are not (and should not
be) required to offer such a gift. But if the author of software you use
has not given you those rights, you should not be surprised when the terms
change in the future.
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