Subject: Re: The GNU AGPL and Free Software Businesses
From: "Michael R. Bernstein" <>
Date: Wed, 12 Sep 2007 16:11:12 -0700
Wed, 12 Sep 2007 16:11:12 -0700
On Wed, 2007-09-12 at 14:29 -0700, Thomas Lord wrote:
> Michael R. Bernstein wrote:
> > The only way that works is if copyright on the improvements is assigned
> > back to the company.
> >
> >   
> Not quite so.   Briefly:
> First, The release of an enterprise-scale but "stripped down"
> AGPL release is a spoiler for highly-funded challengers-from-below.

Well, sure. For purposes of discussion, I think we can safely ignore
scenarios that are exactly equivalent to using the GPL as a competitive
tool for non-hosted software.

> Second, if you're clever, you divide your system up into separate
> components so that hackers-upon-the-AGPL-version obtain the
> most benefit by hacking on components you don't care about, and
> the least benefit on components where your innovation is concentrated.
> If you're very clever, where it's useful, you make sure you can later
> choose to run the AGPL version of components you don't care about.

This assumes a rather Machiavellian degree of cleverness, not to mention
unusual foresight on the part of the Initial Developer. I would assume
that most such attempts will fail miserably, and the useful bits of code
(if any) carted off to other projects.

> Things close to this already happen and AGPL will just make
> them more robust.

I'd be interested in any examples you can provide.

> [snip] I'm thinking about the problem
> (the "web service loophole") from a different angle:
> These days, I'm thinking about the social, economic, and
> software structure of user-facing, hosted, web applications.
> How do these three things interact?
>    1. social aspects of software
>    2. economic aspects of software
>    3. architectural (technical) aspects of software
> I'm looking for leverage, frankly:   how can I engineer
> software that creates social and economic incentives for
> web services that are free software, under end-user control,
> usefully shared, studied, used, and improved?

Well, it is exactly these considerations that are leading me to think
seriously about the GNU AGPL.

Specifically, in the scenario where you want to launch an under- (or
non-) funded open source project for a user-facing web application. You
can host the primary instance of the application at an eponymous domain,
but others can set up their own instances elsewhere.

Obviously, the developer ecosystem can grow without any particular
bottlenecks, and the hosting-the-AGPL-app business ecosystem can grow
with robust competition too, including specialized versions that publish
their code changes that others don't necessarily want to incorporate.

Although all that competition makes it much harder to get and keep the
attractive margins that Freemium Web 2.0 services currently enjoy, for a
sole developer, jump-starting that kind of large ecosystem with the hope
of presiding over it a-la-Linus can be a very attractive financial

Also note that as with GPL, AGPL licensed systems do permit completely
private forks (say within a company's intranet).

- Michael R. Bernstein

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