Open source software – such as the Apache web server and the PHP scripting language – has long been a popular choice amongst adult webmasters. Recently, open source software has also become highly popular for managing content on adult websites. Companies are developing their own extensions to open source software such as the WordPress blogging tool and in some cases selling these extensions as their own products. When selling products based on (or linking to) open source software, one must pay attention to the license of the original software.
Free as in "free beer" or free as in "freedom"?
When talking about open source software, it's important to make a distinction between all open source software and so-called "free" software. Where open source software simply means that a software's source code is made available, the free software proponents are more concerned about the freedom to use, copy and modify the said software. It has been said that "open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement."
Although this might sound like uninteresting semantics or a computer geek turf war to some, the fact of the matter is that the difference between open source and free software has real business implications, especially when developing software and websites based on free software. This applies both to modifying free software and to extending it.
Understanding the GPL
The GNU General Public License is probably the most popular of free software licenses, and particularly interesting to adult webmasters due to its use in the WordPress blogging software and other content management systems. Due to its popularity and the considerable size and relatively complex nature of the license text, there are a lot of common misconceptions about the GPL and how it applies to different software projects. The following are the misconceptions that I've heard the most, along with my interpretations of them:
1. "A plug-in doesn't modify the original code, therefore it doesn't need to be licensed under the GPL."
Wrong. According to the GPL Frequently Asked Questions page, if the program dynamically links plug-ins and they make function calls to each other and share data structures, the plug-ins must be released under the GPL or a GPL-compatible license. Although it's in some cases possible to create plug-ins that don't use any functionalities or data structures of the main program, this is very rarely the case. Thus: most plug-ins (that do anything useful) have to be licensed under a GPL-compatible license – that is, their source code has to be made freely available.
2. "An attribution text must be shown to the users of the GPL-licensed software."
Wrong. Although many authors of GPL-licensed software would like every installation of the software to display their name and preferably a link to their web site, the GPL has no attribution requirement, except for the source code. You are free to remove the attribution text from your installation.
3. "I must redistribute any modifications or extensions I make to GPL-licensed software."
Wrong again. You are free to use the modified source code or the extensions, as long as you don't distribute them. But if you give or sell what you made to anyone, it must be licensed under the GPL (or in case of plug-ins, a GPL-compatible license.) Note that this applies both to individuals and organizations – a company is free to modify GPL-licensed software without giving out the modified source code, as long as the code is only being used internally.
For example, Top Adult Blogs uses a lot of modified GPL-licensed software and custom plug-ins. We don't, however, make any of that code available to the public. Why? Because we only use it internally. The minute we decided we want to make some money off our custom plug-ins by selling them, we'd have to license them under a GPL-compatible license.
Of course, there are a lot more misconceptions about the GPL – these are just the ones that I've heard most often in the adult industry. The GPL FAQ is an invaluable resource if you're not sure about something concerning the GPL.
Why should you care?
Open source (and free) software is most likely the biggest force in the computer software market right now, and it's reshaping the software industry like nothing since the invention of the micro-computer. The use of GPL-licensed software in the adult industry is growing continuously, so it's important to know the implications of using GPL-licensed software before you get burned for not playing by the rules.
Although your website visitors might not care how the software that runs your site is licensed, I'm sure a lot of your competitors would be more than happy to tell the Free Software Foundation if you're, for example, selling software based on GPL-licensed code without making it available in the ways required by the license.
Some parties like to stigmatize the adult industry every time they get a chance, so there might be a bigger chance of license violators in the adult industry being "made examples" of. Thus I urge everyone who's selling or distributing code based or linking to free software code to make sure that they're playing by the rules defined by the software's license.
Although the tone of this article might have been a bit negative, I believe that open source / free software is a wonderful thing and will in the long term bring better software (and hopefully, more profits) to all of us. But as with every new thing, it should be approached with caution and studied before embracing it. It's natural that people make mistakes, but my hope is that this article will encourage people who use free software to think about what they're doing and if they've made mistakes, correct them before it's too late...