Monday, November 10, 2008

For the Love of God Could Somebody Please Explain Open Source Licensing to These People

Sylvia writes about PhET simulations:

Many of them have also been translated into many languages, and are open source so they can be modified if you want.

I have, of course, learned to actually investigate such claims, although this is only, only an issue when universities and foundations purport to be providing open source software to K-12. For all intents and purposes, the entire rest of the software industry gets this right (ok, maybe not embedded system vendors). Universities and foundations get it wrong, and continue to hold out "open source" software to educators like Lucy tempting Charlie Brown with a football.

Anyhow, here's the licensing page:

Creative Commons License PhET Interactive Simulations by The PhET Team, University of Colorado are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
What does this mean?
The interactive simulations developed by The PhET Team may be freely used and/or redistributed by third parties (e.g. students, educators, school districts, museums, etc.) as long as that use or distribution does not involve commercial uses (e.g. reselling the simulations, distributing the simulations through a website that makes money off of ads, etc.). If you are interested in commercial uses, see next section.

For commercial use and distribution of sims:

If you are interested in alternative license options, please contact PhET at

Source code for sims:

Creative Commons License The PhET sourcecode is licensed under a Creative Commons GNU General Public License.

The problem here is very basic. They're trying to use a non-commercial license and the GPL, which allows commercial redistribution. It doesn't make any sense. This is the mess the Hewlett Foundation, NSF (i.e., you, American citizen), and King Saud University get for their money. Pathetic.


Sylvia said...

I'd really like to understand this better. I just took their word for it that it was open source.

Can you explain what these various licenses would mean to a teacher or a student, or a developer? What does it prevent them from doing?

I'm struggling to make sense of things like this and how it translates to real situations. Any light you can shed would be helpful.

Tom Hoffman said...

It really comes down to whether or not you've got these freedoms:

* The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).

* The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

* The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).

* The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Software with a non-commercial license does not give you freedom 0 or 2.

In practical terms, software with non-commercial licenses just does not get distributed very widely. It doesn't have much direct effect on the teacher or student who just wants to use the software.

To a developer, this combination of licenses just doesn't make any sense, which is an obvious disincentive to trying to modify and redistribute the code.

The underlying problem is that academia can't let go of non-commercial licensing.

Stephen Downes said...

It probably doesn't help that Creative Commons appears to have its own GPL (which, according to the logic of Creative Commons, could then be GPL-NC).

That said...

> The underlying problem is that academia can't let go of non-commercial licensing.

No. That isn't the problem. The problem is that commercial agencies take whatever they want, claim they own it, and then block everyone else from accessing it.

And if you don't believe me, try getting documentation for your Susi Linux.

Tom Hoffman said...

The CC GPL isn't a big problem per se, since it is exactly the same as the regular GPL version 2, but yes, it may be more confusing than helpful.

Suse can't and don't make free software un-free, that's the bottom line.

Sylvia said...

OK - so two questions...

1. I clicked on the non-commercial license and it says you can use in any way or "remix" (which seems like sloppy language to me... but anyway) - doesn't this cover 0,1,and 2?

2. so I'm getting that what you mean is that open source means that anyone should be able take the source code and do anything commercial or non-commercial? Yes? Is there any way to prevent the commercial path? Or is that just a bad idea in your view?

Universities use public funds to make this stuff - so is it fair that some company can take it, not share their work, and sell it?

I'm still feeling like I'm missing some key point here.

Tom Hoffman said...


1. You're right about the actual license not restricting use. For some reason I was responding to the project's description of the license on their own page, which was, of course, inaccurate.

I'll take on #2 in a separate post.