Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Scratch Goes Un-Free

To recap briefly, I've posted in the past (I think those posts are lost) about Scratch's annoying take on open source software.

That is: in your NSF grant proposal state that you're going to do ongoing public source code releases; actually license the software under a permissive free software license; while not making it impossible to access the source code, disable the standard method of doing so; when asked about this respond as if confused as to why anyone would think you should be publicly releasing the source, despite the fact that the people of the USA are paying you on exactly those published terms, which you volunteered unprompted in your original proposal.

Still, it is kind of a technical point -- the software was released under a recognized free and open source license. They just made you find a work around on their forums to get to the actual source.

In the current release, they've made things much, much worse. They've given you instructions on accessing the source (good), but they've stopped using a free software license and switched to a non-commercial license (bad, bad, bad). From a licensing point of view, they've forked the project.

Briefly, there are a few problems with this. Nobody knows what a non-commercial license means in this case. Can I, a professional educational technology consultant, hand you a cd with Scratch on it? Can I train you to use it? Since it is un-free software it cannot be put in Debian, Ubuntu, Red Hat, or any other free software distribution. Can it be shipped on the XO? This license significantly restricts the distribution of Scratch to children around the world, and to what benefit?

Just to be clear, I don't have complicated or obscure desires about what Scratch (and other publicly funded educational software) should do: use a free software license and make the source code publicly available. That's it. I don't know whether MIT, the Media Lab, or the Scratch team is responsible for these problems, but the children and educators of the world deserve better treatment.


Bill Kerr said...

hi tom,

You are probably right about this but I would like to see a more thorough, better documented analysis. Sorry, I'm being intellectually lazy and perhaps naive in not doing this myself. But you do understand these issues thoroughly and can articulate them for this particular case.

As far as I can see Scratch is being shipped on the xo and in practice that will continue. Intention and practice count for something even if the legal framework is not as good as it could be.

I recently witnessed some puzzled interchanges about the availability of a book from Viewpoints Research (Powerful Ideas in the Classroom). Copyright was not ideal. I just checked this book now seems to be available for free in Spanish, French, Portuguese and German - but not in English! Oh, dear.

Since, I dislike "Law" myself I can understand why others avoid it. Are these issues really matters of profit making on the side or more to do with not being as vigilant and rigorous as Stallman and Eben Moglen?

There are other issues around of history too. eg. Squeak was initially produced when alan kay worked for Apple and that might constrain want license is possible. Just thinking aloud here (not well researched).

Sadly the link you provide to instructions on providing the source is broken, even though you do have the same link as provided by mit on their Scratch license page

Tom Hoffman said...

The Squeak community in general has a "our heart is in the right place and if we don't think to hard about the details maybe they'll go away" attitude. Plus the project is so old they got started before the best practices for open source licensing were worked out, so they're just stuck with some ambiguity no matter what.

As for the Scratch team, I don't understand what they're thinking, if MIT is making them do this, or what. They also don't seem to like thinking too hard about the issues.

I'm just annoyed that people don't seem to understand the practical advantages of open source licensing over non-commercial licensing. Non-commercially licensed software has never added up to more than a cup of warm spit. Open source software has completely transformed the industry and the whole way we look at intellectual property. Non-commercially licensed software is shelfware. Nobody benefits from that.