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Affero GPL finally closes the SaaS loophole – Who Cares?

I couldn’t let the much anticipated announcement last week of the final draft of the new Affero GPL go by without making at least a few comments. First of all, I love open source. But, I am unimpressed by the new GNU Afferro GPL for three simple reasons.
1) It is a weak effort
2) It is already obsolete
3) It is irrelevant
While there are 10 pages dealing with everything from patents to liability, largely legacy from the original GPL that was designed for installed, perpetual license software, there is fully ONE SENTENCE that attempts to deal with what is clearly the biggest disruption to the software industry since the personal computer.

“Notwithstanding any other provision of this License, if you modify the Program, your modified version must prominently offer all users interacting with it remotely through a computer network (if your version supports such interaction) an opportunity to receive the Corresponding Source of your version by providing access to the Corresponding Source from a network server at no charge, through some standard or customary means of facilitating copying of software.”

This is a band-aid and indicates a lack of interest in exploring the issue. The elephant in the room is that real value is shifting from the software itself to the fully integrated service offering, and the two are intimately intertwined. The delivery, scalability, integration, configuration, usability and administration of the software have as much influence over the Web user experience as the source code itself. Put another way, whose interests are the FSF really representing, developers or consumers?

While I think it is a truly beautiful philosophy that software should be “free to run…to study…to improve…to redistribute,” it is in reality free because its fundamental economic value is dropping to zero! If you buy into the idea that software-as-a-service is built around the delivery of a commodity offering, then you understand that real economic value and competitive advantage lie outside the functional capabilities implied by the source code, i.e., proprietary assets or IP in service delivery, brand loyalty, or switching costs. Any competitor worth its salt can duplicate another’s functionality in a matter of months, with or without the source code, but can that competitor deliver it to the user.

Alternatively, Web-based SaaS applications bring capabilities to consumers and SMB’s that they would not be able to afford or are perhaps even impossible under an installed, license distribution model. Different proponents of open source (myself being one) each have their own philosophy and motivations, but one underlying theme is making good software available to everyone. While much of the controversy surrounding this new license has been about stopping evil Web companies from taking advantage of open source, I will submit that it just don’t matter. Free software continues to make strong inroads into the installed, enterprise software space (and I will arbitrarily include Web servers in this category), but it is in danger of losing its philosophical underpinnings on the increasingly syndicated, service-driven Web.

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