Is the Affero GPL unfriendly to hobbyists?

Can home users handle Copyleft requirements?

A few days ago I wrote about GNU MediaGoblin, a project that looks to provide a federated media sharing solution so users can take control of their media and still share with friends. But the licensing for GNU MediaGoblin, the Affero GPLv3 (AGPLv3) seemed to irk a few commenters? Is the AGPL's "one additional feature" too much for hobbyists?

The difference between the AGPL and traditional GPL is simple: The AGPL seeks to close a "loophole" that allows a company or organization to modify GPL'ed software and use it to provide a service — but without actually distributing changes. So a company can take a package like, say, WordPress and modify the software significantly to sell a service — but hold back changes because it's not technically "distributing" or "propagating" the software. The AGPL goes a bit further and says that if the program is "intended to interact with users through a computer network" and if the version that you received gives users "the opportunity to request transmission to that user of the Program's complete source code," you have to maintain that functionality and distribute the modified version.

In a nutshell, this closes the "loophole" for the GPL and requires companies to provide source code even if they're not "distributing" their version. Good, right? Well, some folks have expressed concern that this may be a problem for "private hosting" of GNU MediaGoblin.

This does, sort of, raise a legitimate issue. The AGPL was conceived to deal with companies that were "getting around" the GPL — not because a proud parent wanted to post pics of their kids online without submitting family photos to Flickr or Facebook's terms of service. And the proud (but geeky, privacy- and rights-conscious) parents should definitely be part of MediaGoblin's audience, right?

It's a legitimate concern, but not one that should be dealt with by abandoning the AGPL. If the MediaGoblin folks are successful, it's likely to be attractive software for at least a few businesses as well as lots of hobbyist users. The protections that are afforded by the AGPL shouldn't be abandoned because it might be a little more complicated for personal hosting. Nor should the MediaGoblin folks try to complicate the AGPL with a "personal use" clause. Instead, assuming the project gains traction, the project should use the opportunity to teach users a few things about digital rights, licensing, and privacy.

A Teachable Moment

It's important to remember that the GNU MediaGoblin project is driven in part by the philosophy of the GNU Project, and not just to produce media-sharing software. It'd be a waste if the project produced a kick-ass federated media-sharing platform, and then failed to try to raise consciousness in its users. Instead, the project should use this as "a teachable moment" to educate a wider audience about their license and philosophy.

Yes, there's potentially more work for users who modify the software — but that's a small price to pay for the benefits that MediaGoblin would confer. Users who are actually going to modify the software have no more excuse not to comply with the AGPL than a company using MediaGoblin for business. Yes, it might be a tiny bit of a hassle — but if you excuse hobbyists from the requirements of the AGPL because it's a hassle, why should an organization comply? Dealing with any license and being in compliance is part of the responsibility you accept when using software you didn't write yourself. I find it odd that anyone who has a problem with the rights-grab and privacy problems that Facebook and other proprietary services have would find it onerous to comply with the AGPL.

Of course the project needs to be aware of its audience — and if users are found to be unintentionally out of compliance with the AGPL, I hope that they're approached politely about coming into compliance.

Should the project change its license? Emphatically no. When it's ready to ship, they should be sure to provide some very visible guidance about the license and help users comply — but the home hackers should be held to the same requirements as any organization that ships AGPL'ed code. Users that can't be bothered with a little extra effort don't really deserve the benefits that they'd get from the license.


Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

The 10 most powerful companies in enterprise networking 2022