Follow Slashdot blog updates by subscribing to our blog RSS feed

 



Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Check out the new SourceForge HTML5 internet speed test! No Flash necessary and runs on all devices. ×
GNU is Not Unix

Open Source And The Obligation To Recycle 312

Lisa writes "Tim O'Reilly has a piece called "Open Source and the Obligation to Recycle" in his weblog, where he urges every company whose products are "obsolete" to consider making them available under an open source license, or putting them in the public domain, thereby enriching the soil of our collective commons. (Interestingly, the first posting on the weblog disagrees, saying "...Giving away the software of failed companies could turn every corporate failure into a disaster for everyone else.)""
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Open Source And The Obligation To Recycle

Comments Filter:
  • by kitts ( 545683 ) on Thursday January 03, 2002 @02:43PM (#2780099) Homepage
    Giving away the software of failed companies could turn every corporate failure into a disaster for everyone else.

    I'm probably taking this out of context, but this is a silly thing to say:

    1. Corporate failures are not directly tied to bad software.

    2. You can still learn something from the source code of bad software, even if it's only what not to do.
    • Read the article -- if the company that fails fails through reasons unrelated to software quality, it will have a huge detriment to companies that provide a similar product, even if the remaining company had a slightly superior product.

      ie: If Microsoft were to cut loose SQL server, and published the full and complete source code under a completely free and open license (Quit laughing! It's just an example!) would Oracle maintain their current sales volume?

      Not likely.
      • What Glass doesn't get is that that would be a
        *good* thing. In your example, let's say Oracle
        loses half their market share to a free product.
        That means that companies around the world have
        billions and billions of dollars that they used
        to spend on database software that they can now
        spend on other things. It would be like a tax
        cut!
    • by Cato the Elder ( 520133 ) on Thursday January 03, 2002 @02:56PM (#2780193) Homepage
      You are definetely taking the remark out of context...of course, so did the original poster.

      I highly recommend you read the post, as it's fairly well written. At the risk of creating a strawman, BrettGlass argues that making failed software free will tend to hurt for-profit development in the same area, since they will still have to charge for their products. He asserts that it would be even worse if the orphaned code was relicensed under the GPL.

      I have to disagree with him on the degree of harm that would be caused to commercial development efforts by this. The market has already shown a tendancy to go with commercially supported solutions. Now, as far as a brand-new product that just got dropped, yes, that could have a chilling effect on the market for a while. But that's not the kind of orphaned code the article talked about most. Besides, if the product could cause your companies death, don't you think you'd try to raise the money to buy the code?

      I agree with him about releasing the code under the GPL, however. Doing that would prevent any commercial company from incorperating any of the code in there projects. At the same time, there would be no existing community of GPL-developers willing to work on the project and familiar with the codebase.
      • by weinerdog ( 181465 ) on Thursday January 03, 2002 @04:44PM (#2780939) Homepage
        Even if we were to accept Glass's argument about free software threatening for-profit business is true, one ought to question the assumption that this is a bad thing.

        It seems to me that people giving away something in a not-for-profit or community-oriented manner (as opposed to dumping in order to gain a for-profit advantage in the market, which is a different matter altogether) is always a good thing. The argument that it is bad because it hurts for-profit businesses trying to sell the same thing is based on the twisted notion that making money, and not satisfying human need, is the pre-emminent goal. Or perhaps it is the business model in which business speculates on potential demand rather than contracting to produce for existing demand that is the problem.

        It can be argued that community or family-based child care puts commercial daycare out of business. It can be argued that community or one-on-one educational activities hurts the business of trade schools that would like to charge money for teaching the same skills. It can be argued that cleaning one's own house and cooking one's own meals depresses the market for housekeepers and threatens the well-being of restaurants and the frozen food industry, but it would be ludicrous to argue that one should not cook one's own dinners, care for one's grandchildren, or teach one's neighbour how to install Windows (well...) because it's bad for the economy, unless one assumes that a strong economy is an end in itself, more important than the welfare of the people some of us thought the economy was supposed to serve.

        The bottom line being, if you are in business trying to sell something that someone else is willing to give away out of some sort of civic-mindedness, you should be looking for a new business to be in. If you are investing R&D money in a speculative venture, you should be prepared to lose big if demand for your product does not materialize, as well as win big if it does.
        • unless one assumes that a strong economy is an end in itself, more important than the welfare of the people some of us thought the economy was supposed to serve.

          I don't see how having a strong economy can be incompatible with social welfare. I've always kind of thought they are the same thing. I think the problem is that some people equate 'strong economy' with a dystopian vision of concentrated power and greed uber alles. Stomping competing software and competing licensing models out of existence does nothing to create a 'strong economy' that I can see.
      • No. What he said about the GPL was equally silly "We wouldn't even be allowed to look at the code". It might be a bit damaging, however. Perhaps. But if it were good enough to be damaging, perhaps it would be good enough to be salable. At least, I can't imagine that something that wasn't good enough to be salable could be very damaging.

        Besides, the thrust of the article was at "obsolete code", so this is clearly a red herring.
        .
        • What he said about the GPL was equally silly "We wouldn't even be allowed to look at the code".

          It made perfect sense to me. If your product's license is not GPL-compatible (and that's not exactly difficult to achieve), you should stay away from looking at GPL code for ideas just as much as, for example, Kaffe developers must stay away from Sun's Java code. Otherwise, you open yourself up for legal action.

      • I've never seen a product that couldn't be upgraded. Even if a failed company released it's software for free, smart people could make money by upgrading it to market demand. Having a code base is invaluable.

        What about competition would be bad for the surviving competitors of the failed company?
      • I have to disagree with him on the degree of harm that would be caused to commercial development efforts by this. The market has already shown a tendancy to go with commercially supported solutions.

        You're being kind.

        He is basically arguing that if a failed package in a given market becomes free, it will automatically overtake the previously victorious competitor, even if it is missing features or buggy.

        Unfortunately, historical fact proves exactly the opposite. StarOffice/OpenOffice hasn't made even a fractional percentage dent into Microsoft Office's sales. Interbase has taken exactly zero customers away from Oracle.

        Now, it is certainly true that a pre-existing free product may discourage further development in the niche it occupies. Thus do we have the complete paucity of alternatives to GCC on the Linux and BSD platforms. But that's a very different scenario than the one Glass is addressing.
    • 2. You can still learn something from the source code of bad software, even if it's only what not to do.

      You can learn a lot from failed software. My experience has been that software fails when requirements are vauge and the developers spend time architecting kewl stuff and polishing it rather than letting the marketing dept make sure it gives the users a few key features, and push it out the door when it's barely good enough (this is what makes MS what they are today).

      Anyways the sad truth is that failed software often has really neat code. Beos, anyone?

    • Giving away the software of failed companies could turn every corporate failure into a disaster for everyone else.

      I'm probably taking this out of context, but this is a silly thing to say: [snip]

      Agreed, also because if the software has any market value, it can't be given away by a failed company -- the software product will be sold to pay off creditors.

  • Although I agree that on the surface it would be great to open source, and free up all products that are no longer supported. But wouldn't this cause a trend of people not buying commercial software, and just waiting for them to go out of business so they could get it for free?
    • Although I agree that on the surface it would be great to open source, and free up all products that are no longer supported. But wouldn't this cause a trend of people not buying commercial software, and just waiting for them to go out of business so they could get it for free?

      That's not necessarily what he's saying. He's saying that software that's obsolete should be opened up. It has nothing to do with the companies going under, although that certainly does cause some software to go obsolete.

      Here's a perfect example: When's the last time you heard of a company making money selling Commodore 64 games? The Commodore 64 is a perfect example of an obsolete technology. But even though the technology is obsolete, and for all practical purposes, worthless, the games themselves will be copyrighted for another 90 bazillion years (give or take a few). Even the companies that still exist (like EA) are not making a dime from these games, yet they are still protected. Why? How does that benefit anyone?

      If someone "pirates" a Commodore 64 game today, does the SPA consider it a loss for the company at the software's full, 1985 retail price?

      • because they own the title. And someone might use the game title that used to be successfull, make a new game and reap the benefits of someone elses marketing.
        the spa not only considers it a loss a full retail value, they take the 1985 money and translate it to 2002 money.
    • Well there is Windows and Linux.

      There is *n*x and Linux.
  • by reaper20 ( 23396 ) on Thursday January 03, 2002 @02:48PM (#2780136) Homepage
    I was half expecting him to mention Eazel and Nautilus as a perfect example of what he's talking about, but I guess he missed that. Heh.

    I feel his pain, there are some really old programs that I would love to play around with now. Anyone remember Geos? I used to run it on my 286 and was years ahead of its time....
    • I ran GeOS on the Apple IIGs! It was also the first software I ever read the license agreement for. It blew my mind and I was in a bad mood for two days. I couldn't believe they had the audacity to tell me I hadn't bought anything when we gave them money!.



      All the same it was a great piece of software.

    • Re:What about Eazel. (Score:3, Informative)

      by dublin ( 31215 )
      GEOS *was* cool - I still think it's the most impressive single hack I've ever seen. The 286 version was a much later derivative: the original version put a whole GUI/Windowing environment and a decent set of basic apps (Word processor, spreadsheet, etc.) on a Commodore 64!

      That's right, a window system/OS analog and apps all in 64 KILObytes of main memory. Damn impressive hack.

      It wasn't just for show, either: I actually used it to turn out all the papers, reports, etc. I wrote my senior year in college. (Now I'm dating myself... ;-) )
  • Problems with this (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Com2Kid ( 142006 ) <com2kidSPAMLESS@gmail.com> on Thursday January 03, 2002 @02:49PM (#2780141) Homepage Journal
    I remember reading up the other day on a game called Star Command.

    When asked why they didn't release the game for free or open source it, a person in the company (CEO/Lead developer or some such high up person, small company anyways) said that it would take too much of their time and money.

    First they would have to try and FIND the source code (doubtful if it still existed), then if they managed to do that, reassign some people from another money making project to taking an old (in this case DOS game) and removing the protections and security checks they put in there and scanning in the documentation, bundeling it up, setting up a server for distribution (or maintaining a sourceforge account, granted they could pass it on to somebody, but then that entales the legal issues involved), all just to make a few people happy that they could now freely get an old DOS game.

    Sure it /MIGHT/ be upgraded to something modern and ported all over heck and such, but shoot, reality is that it would cost them MONEY when they are already a struggeling small company.

    Not to mention cases where the rights to a program are split across a few gazzilion people and numerious corporations. This is especialy true when one company has the rights to the game and another company has the rights to distribution. Icky situation there. And if by some chance somebody sold off merchandising rights. . . . oh man, no hope at /ALL/.

    A good first step though would be to /REDUCE/ the copyright limit. ~7years for computer programs and ~25 years for books and other documents sounds nice. (Some books stay in print and keep on selling for longer then that though)

    At least it would take care of the legal hassles somewhat, but it still wouldn't help with finding the sourcecode.

    "umm, lets see now, where did I shove that 5.25' disk. . . . . "
    • by tommck ( 69750 ) on Thursday January 03, 2002 @03:00PM (#2780237) Homepage
      "umm, lets see now, where did I shove that 5.25' disk. . . . . "

      Man, This guy's gotta be old! I thought 8" floppies were as big as they got... But FIVE AND A QUARTER FEET! Holy Cow! ;-)

    • 2 points.
      If you don't know where the source code is, then don't bother.
      a side note, if you can't find the source code to any product you ever produced, your company has problems.
      Also, there needs to be no changes for copy protect because the sourse will be open, and the people interested in ti can handle it themselves.

      of course, if you have comments in there that could get your company in trouble, you might want to remove those.
      • You can hardly criticize someone for not having readily available the source code to a piece of software from about 15 years ago.

        Even if these companies could jump dump the source somewhere, there will always be come enterprising nerd to pick it up and put it back together. Of course, with games like Star Command which was probably written in BASIC, it might be easier to just redesign and rewrite it.

        • by GemFire ( 192853 )
          If everything copyrighted had to be properly registered with the copyright office as was originally required, then the source code would be available from the copyright office once the work was declared PD.

          One of the stupidest changes made in the 1976 revision to copyright law was the elimination of the registration requirement. Now everything in the world is automatically copyrighted, but no one is required to take any responsibility for their creations.
    • First they would have to try and FIND the source code (doubtful if it still existed), then if they managed to do that, reassign some people...

      I think maybe the person at the company misunderstood you. The minimum effort required to make certain people happy would be to "release" (loaded word) Star Command to the public domain. This would just involve drafting a letter in legalese saying "where Star Command is concerned, knock yourselves out!" Then, people could (legally) make copies of it, distribute it, reverse-engineer it...

      I suspect that there may be marketing types who worry that software "released" by the company is a reflection of the company (not entirely unreasonable), so if people are disappointed with the product for any reason, then that is bad PR. The only way to mitigate this (in the minds of marketing) is to provide some level of support. I think they just need to be assured that the market for these obsolete s/w packages is so small that it's nothing to worry about.

    • I remember reading up the other day on a game called Star Command.

      You mean the DOS game with CGA graphics where you have a spaceship, a team of 6 people, and you get different missions so you fly around the galaxy to fulfill them? I loved that game! I think I probably spent more time with that game than any other, ever. Published by SSI if I recall correctly. . . I had to tape the instruction manual together because I used it so much it was just falling apart. Do you recall where you found something on it? Google isn't being very helpful.

      -"Zow"

  • I think the correct wording is (bold words mine):

    Interestingly, the first posting on the weblog appears to disagree, saying "...Giving away the software of failed companies could turn every corporate failure into a disaster for everyone else."

    While the software of failed companies seems at first blush like a bad idea, in actuality a lot of the code is quite good and useable. Having a huge base of code, good or not, to work from can be quite a boon; the trick is to be choosy with what you actually end up using.

    So, while having the software available may be a good idea, actually using it may not be.
  • My first candidate for free source to a discontinued product would be the DOS version of word perfect. The reason why is that I would like a console only (no X) version of WP for linux.

    What others ?
  • by ryants ( 310088 ) on Thursday January 03, 2002 @02:49PM (#2780149)
    Ironically, the failure of my competitor is likely to kill my company, too -- EVEN IF MY PRODUCT IS SUPERIOR. (People will tolerate many shortcomings in something that's free.)
    Then why doesn't Linux (*BSD, etc) own 95% of the desktop market?

    The situation gets worse still if the GPL enters the picture. If the competitor's code is released under the GPL, I cannot so much as LOOK at it.
    Sure you can. Just don't copy it.

    Thus, the sudden release of software from companies that go out of business either into the public domain or (worse) under the GPL can cause a chain reaction which destroys any incentives to create or improve products in that category.
    *laugh* Really... Microsoft continues to "compete" with Linux, KOffice, etc. Eudora competes with mutt. I'm afraid I just don't see any justification for the above statement.
    • Glass sounds like a blacksmith complaining that
      he'll be out of work if everyone drives horseless
      carriages.

      Or like the RIAA complaining that their members
      will be out of business if everyone distributes
      their music over the internet.
    • A couple more opinion points about the "failed companies" thing.
      1. I think O'Reilly was more interested in targeting successful corporations who are sitting on decades of abandonware [google.com], not DotBombs with a couple pieces of beta code.
      2. Whether or not it would endanger competing software, giving away said failure-ware would almost certainly be blocked by a bankruptcy judge. Those are assets which must be sold in order to pay back creditors.
      • by MemeRot ( 80975 )
        I owned Bard's Tale on my old Amiga. Don't have the Amiga any more, can't buy the game for the PC. Now I could copy it from any of a dozen abandonware sites and nobody would come after me, but I would be doing something that's technically illegal. Things that should be permissible and whose sanctions are not enforced shouldn't be illegal. It's illegal to have oral sex in Virginia. That law and copyright protection for abandonware have equal (that is zero) moral weight. Now I've never let these silly laws get in my way, but it annoys the heck out of me that just living my life, harming nobody, marks me as a criminal.

        And the earlier posts about Frogger and Pac-Man - offbase there. You could remove copyright restrictions on the games, but still retain your registered trademark so that nobody else can make Frogger 2002, but people can play their childhood favorite for free.
    • by Corgha ( 60478 ) on Thursday January 03, 2002 @04:09PM (#2780701)
      The situation gets worse still if the GPL enters the picture. If the competitor's code is released under the GPL, I cannot so much as LOOK at it.

      Sure you can. Just don't copy it.

      Not to mention the fact that if the competitor's code weren't released, he certainly wouldn't be able to look at it or copy it anyway.

      Seems like a null statement to me, or just more "save us from the viral GPL" nonsense.

      Honestly, nothing about the GPL forces you to take someone else's code and steal it for your proprietary uses. Coders who complain that the GPL is "viral" and want all code to be closed or BSD-licensed are like men who complain that women are too tempting and want them to cover themselves in robes and veils. If your urge to sin (to steal someone else's copyrighted work and try to sell it as your own) is unsurmountable, the blame lies with you; don't try to push it onto the GPL or the person who wrote the code.

      It's a human tendency to feel tempted and to resent the object of one's temptations, and it is perhaps understandable, but it is not something on which policy should be based or about which one can rightfully complain.

      After all, if you're feeling frustrating desires for the beautiful people or code around you, both can be satisfied with your own hand(s) ;)

      (boy am I going to get flamed for this one. bye-bye karma)
  • When software dies, it often leaves behind engineers who knew the software well as well as customers who feel screwed by the software's lack of life support.


    At the very least, opening the source of dead software allows these former employees to consult for the former customers without the intermediary corporate leaders and their marketing department.


    Even if a product as a whole was not viable, there may be components that could be packaged up as valuable contributions to the OSS community. And there are definitely engineers (like me) with enough time on their hands and the strong desire to see something of value come from the ashes of old dead projects.

  • Ah....Abandonware (Score:2, Insightful)

    by syrupMatt ( 248267 )
    The debate over abadonware has been going on for awhile now (though it usually centers around the gaming arena).

    It's good to see someone with ranking stature taking on such a muddled but oddly important issue. The reason most companies would be against giving away outright their copyright on "abandonded" products is the fear of repackaging and their loss on what could be someone else's gain. However, if legislation (or a license) could be produced to qualm these kinds of fears while still allowing legitimate uses of abandonded products to take place, I think a happy medium between both sides would be found.
  • by markj02 ( 544487 ) on Thursday January 03, 2002 @02:52PM (#2780169)
    Giving away the software of failed companies could turn every corporate failure into a disaster for everyone else.

    I presume what the poster means is that by giving away the software, the company destroys the market for the competitors.

    Well, that isn't quite true, as we have seen again and again. In fact, in real life, the source code and executable are only a small part of the value of a software product. Most of the value is in the ongoing maintenance, business relationships, trademarks, the user base, the books that have been written about it, in short, the "network" that surrounds it.

    To the degree that it is true, well, software companies simply have to get used to the fact that, once created, it costs nothing to give software to additional people--that ultimately has a lot of influence over how software can be priced and licensed. There is no use whining about basic economic realities.

  • Yea, that's all we need... a bunch of Windows 3.1 clones! Maybe Attack of the Clones isn't so far-fetched anyhow?
  • "...Giving away the software of failed companies could turn every corporate failure into a disaster for everyone else.)"

    I have to emphatically disagree. The rise and fall of a software product's success has far more to do with market dynamics, marketing itself, business decisions, and any variety of other dynamics than it does software quality or the usefulness of source code to the community.

    C//
  • All this really does is to express evidence of a need to change the IP so to better support what they were intended to support.

    See my journal for more.
  • I've often wondered why more companies don't release the source code once the product is no longer viable. When I was younger and less experienced in the corporate world, I'd always thought it was because corporations were made up of evil bastards who want to control everything. As it turns out, most corporations are just made up of people who want to keep their jobs.

    Anyway, a really good reason for not releasing the source code is that no matter how hard you try, you ALWAYS end up supporting it. I'm sure in most cases it would be a hassle and an unnecessary expenditure. Not to mention any legal issues that might arise if it becomes evident that a company has *ahem* borrowed code from someone else's product. I bet we'd be amazed to see the amount of IT espionage that happens between major competitors. :)

    You know, there are quite a lot of game companies that I wish did this though. Besides id.

  • Does he mean GPL or public domain? I would much rather prefer the latter, since it would probably be the fairest way to do it.
  • by grnbrg ( 140964 ) <[slashdot] [at] [grnbrg.org]> on Thursday January 03, 2002 @03:08PM (#2780284)
    (IANAL)
    With regards to solvent companies opening "obsolete" software...

    It occurs to me that part of the problem may also be in terms of companies and protecting their existing intelectual property. If a company decides that a particular software product is too old, or not selling well enough, and they release it to the public (either as source or binary) then might it be argued that they are no longer actively protecting their IP and leave themselves more open to their competitors?

    For example, you can no longer (I think) buy a copy of Doom or Quake, and while the *engine* code has been released under the GPL, the rest of the games (graphics, levels, sounds, etc) remain copyrighted to id.

    (/IANAL)
    • by Drakin ( 415182 )
      You can actually buy copies of Quake, usually in a package with Quake I, II and some flavour of III. Haven't seen doom, but have seen Doom II around still.
    • There are four kinds of IP: trade secrets, trademarks, copyrights, and patents. You must protect your trade secrets if you want to enjoy legal protections, but trade secrets obviously stop being trade secrets when you publish, so that's not an issue. You need to protect trademarks actively, but that is independent of publishing the source code. Copyrights and patents do not require enforcement in order to remain valid.

      The main obstacle to open sourcing software is that it may contain other people's code and you can't publish or redistribute code that others hold copyrights or trade secrets in if the contractual agreement with them doesn't allow for it.

  • Assets (Score:3, Interesting)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Thursday January 03, 2002 @03:13PM (#2780317) Homepage Journal
    software is an asset, if I company just gave it away, its value would decline.
    Right or wrong, That is how it would be seen in the financial and business world. That also happens to be the world you need to look good in to survive.
    If a company goes chapter 11, that asset is delegated by the courts.
    Plus, what happen if someone releases a crappy product, has no sales, then someone come along, puts in 2 week worth of work, and creats a product thats in demand? The company would look bad, and you don't want to look bad to the market.

    Are these reason pretty stupid since that compnay wouldn't be making money from the product anyways? yes, but what dpoes that have to do with business?
    • It's value?! Are we talking about companies which only exist to sell themselves out to the highest bidder? Id Software gives out its software, and uhhh...it's not going down the tubes.
  • by CDWert ( 450988 ) on Thursday January 03, 2002 @03:17PM (#2780340) Homepage
    I agree with the recycle concept of obsolete software, there are a few companies that do this, ID Software as mentioned here last week, and a few others,

    Many companies , especially smaller ones have issues releasing their code even after their demise because of Ego issues, yes Ego, they write stuuf and will sell it , and some of it is a lame horrid hack. Even if it isnt people are afraid of rejection of their coding practices,

    Dont belive me, ask some people over at sun what it was like when they made their source avaiable, developers panicked, at the thought of open review of their code, I saw so much code bashing BEFORE a single line was released I thought shit, anyone ever get to my code Im in trouble :) People actually feared for not only their status after peer review but their jobs as well.

    Granted It may be different when a company dumps into ch11 but not a whole lot, Ive written code I am truly proud of , the stuff that people I think are out of my league have said I dont know how it can work, thats one of the nicest pieces of code Ive ever seen......AND Ive written code I myself looked at 5 years later and yelled who wrote this shit, only to see it was me...

    I wouldnt want that code out there....(well some of it is....anyone running Apache on Windows :)

    Ego.....makes the world go round.....
    • Many companies , especially smaller ones have issues releasing their code even after their demise because of Ego issues, yes Ego, they write stuuf and will sell it , and some of it is a lame horrid hack.

      Wonderful! Imagine what it would do the programmers if they knew that in some years, maybe three, maybe seven, their code would be posted for anyone to read. Imagine a programmer explaining to a manager that the code he's written may solve the problem today, but he won't have his name going public with it, because frankly, it sucks, and given another week, he'll write a much neater implementation of the same algorithm...

      Imagine if a company had a clause releasing all their software under GPL in case of bankruptcy or takeover (keeping the copyright and honouring all existing license agreements, of course). Great guarantee for customers, and a bit of extra stability for the company.

      If I had to buy mission-critical software, I would love to have such conditions in the agreement. Wouldn't you?

  • by per unit analyzer ( 240753 ) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `ZreenignE'> on Thursday January 03, 2002 @03:28PM (#2780419)
    I think a distinction needs to be made between orphaned software and abandonware.

    Software that gets orphaned by a company that goes out of business most likely is not obsolete and its release to the public could have damaging effects on competitors. However, if that's the case, it's the job of the bankruptcy judge, trustee, or whoever is shutting down the company to recognize that software still has value. If the software is still so competitive it could put someone else out of business, chances are someone will want to buy that software. And that value should be returned to creditors or shareholders of the defunct company that otherwise would receive nothing.

    Abandonware on the other hand, is software that its "parent" deems obsolete and of little or no value anymore. There are a lot of other programmers (both hobbiest and professional) that could take advantage of recycling "useless" code. O'Reilly's example of a user wanting to share "obsolete" software for a niche application is something I have experienced myself and it is frustrating. I say encourage companies to release their abandonware to the public.

    In either case however, the decision should be voluntary, and in the case of bankruptcy, with input from all interested parties.

    I can understand why companies (especially the big guys) are reluctant to share abandonware. The support issue really never goes away. In some cases there might be some lingering IP that you carried through to your current products that your competitors still don't have, and you might not even know it. I think a lot of companies hold onto abandonware because they don't want to unknowingly form the basis for someone else's business or worse yet, aid their competitors.

    -z

  • Does he plan to make all the out of print books
    text available?
  • by jms ( 11418 ) on Thursday January 03, 2002 @03:35PM (#2780462)
    This article illustrates the complete failure of the only constitutional purpose of modern copyright law with respect to software -- a failure to establish a public domain, in both senses of the word.

    The first sense is the idea of public domain as "uncopyrighted" or "expired copyright." Had Congress resisted the urge to tamper with the copyright laws in 1976, things would be different. Under the pre-1976 copyright regime, copyright lasted for 28 years, with the option to re-register for an additional 28 year term. Under this system, abandonware from the early 1970s would be now regularly entering the public domain. In two or so years, we would start to see the first generation of abandoned PC software enter the public domain -- old Apple II software, games and system software from long-lost companies. Instead, by repeatedly extending copyright, and removing the renewal requirement, Congress has essentially consigned the history of computer software to destruction. Very few of us will live long enough to be allowed to legally copy the software that was written before many of us were even born. Even if we did live long enough, the media will have long decayed, any software from the early days of personal computers will only survive as illegally made copies. In essence, Congress has criminalized the work of the historian and archivist, with no real benefit to anyone.

    There is another sense of the "public domain" in which the copyright laws have even more drastically failed. This is the sense of the "public domain" as "the body of work available to the public to read and learn from." The problem is that by allowing copyright on object code, and by allowing software publishers to treat source code as trade secrets, in essence, computer programmers are forced to learn their trade from scratch. Imagine if a student expressed an interest in becoming a writer, and was told, "If you want to be a writer, you will never be permitted to legally read books written by successful, popular authors." I doubt that the result would be better literature, but that our public policy with respect to software -- both by attaching copyright protection to object code, and by allowing the attachment of licenses to software that forbid reverse-engineering -- a technical term for "reading" software.

    The primary purpose of copyright was to place knowledge into the public domain. That's why patents must be openly published, and why, originally, only published works were eligible for copyright. Now, with copyright protection automatically attaching to all works, whether or not they are ever published in a form that adds to the public domain, we are back to the bad old days of proprietary licensing of -- and the subsequent destruction of learning and knowledge -- the very problem that copyright was designed to put an end to!

    I believe that the real revolution in free software is not a better business model. It is not the sense of community that it fosters. It is not the reduced costs or the improved quality.

    The real revolution in free software is that it in effect reestablishes the public domain that has been systematically destroyed by Congress in passing ever more restrictive, destructive copyright legislation. In the year 2002, free software is the public domain. It's the software that you can download, study, modify, improve, sell, and give away. It's the software that you can learn from, instead of just use.

    Unlike proprietary software, free software is the software that promotes the progress of science and the useful arts, and anyone who is interested in promoting progress in the field of computer science should strongly consider releasing their software under the GPL, after its commercial potential has been exhausted.
  • Abandoned IP (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Squirrel Killer ( 23450 ) on Thursday January 03, 2002 @03:36PM (#2780465)
    Susan Aker [osopinion.com] wrote an excellent piece for OSOpinion about a year ago that compliments Tim's. She talks more about a change in the legal status of abandoned IP than Tim's focus to create an additional mandate on the abandoning companies. And since abandonment, in a legal sense, is a pretty specific concept, BrettGlass's concerns are addressed as well (abandonment would take enough time for a commercial package to make significant enhancements to keep their market share.)

    I really disagree with Tim's proposal to force abandoned code to be made available at the source code level. That's not free speech, it's forced speech. Sure Lotus Improv is out there already, it's been abandoned, let people copy the binaries as they wish. But to force Lotus to cough up the source is an unreasonable burden. Hell, the source code could be near impossible to find even for the original programmers. Finally, the source code can represent an asset for the company that will be valuable when they sell off.

    -sk

  • by sulli ( 195030 ) on Thursday January 03, 2002 @03:40PM (#2780491) Journal
    Developers/publishers have the option to release their expired/retired/obsolete code. I personally think it's a good idea to release it, and under a relatively free license like BSD, but it's really up to the publisher.

    BrettGlass' objections to the GPL are just that - GPL specific. Really this is easy to work around; (1) if you don't like GPL, don't release it that way; and (2) if you don't like GPL, don't use GPL code, including obsolete code. The publisher can and should decide which way (GPL or something else) is better.

    What I don't see is the downside. What possible harm could come from code being out there? Sure, it's harmful to competitors, but so also is newly written GPL (or BSD, or ...) code that's out there, free as in beer/speech, and in any case protecting competitors shouldn't be our business.

    If it's bad for the publisher, for example if it increases support costs or cannibalizes sales of the current product, then of course the publisher may choose to trash it. But if it isn't, there's zero (0) harm to anyone else, so let's encourage this behavior!

    • "What possible harm could come from code being out there? Sure, it's harmful to competitors, but so also is newly written GPL (or BSD, or ...) code that's out there, free as in beer/speech..."
      The difference is that there's already a userbase of exisiting code. Imagine if Quark went out of business and QuarkXPress became free overnight. Who would continue to pay $600 for Adobe Pagemaker. Or if NewTek went under, who's going to pay for Maya when LightWave is free? But someone writing a new, free-beer desktop publishing program or 3D renderer isn't going to make a huge impact immediately. Blender is making it's way very slowly, and Gimp is hardly replacing Photoshop (although I did give up PS for Gimp on Win32 several years ago).

      While protecting competitors shouldn't be our business, neither should destroying other businesses.

      -sk

      • While protecting competitors shouldn't be our business, neither should destroying other businesses.

        With all due respect, if an actively developed, marketed, and supported product cannot withstand the horrific onslaught of an unsupported, unmarketed competitor that didn't succeed in the market in the first place, I doubt that even protection could help it or its manufacturer.

  • Lawrence Lessig (Score:2, Informative)

    by blkros ( 304521 )
    had something similar in Wired a few months ago. He proposed that software be held in trust by the patent office, (or was it copyright?), and when the patent(copyright) expired(a shorter time than regular copyright, because of the nature of software), be put out to the public. Sounds good to me.
  • That'll be why O'Reilly handed their webboard [webboard.com] application over to another commercial company [oreilly.com] when they decided to discontinue developing it then.
    I'm such a cynic.

  • by egomaniac ( 105476 ) on Thursday January 03, 2002 @04:15PM (#2780735) Homepage
    The request sounds simple in theory, but as always it's more complicated than this.

    What if somebody is scanning through the code and finds

    // we have to do it this way because Intel is a bunch of fucking idiots

    Would you really want that being leaked into the public? Particularly if you have a close working relationship with Intel?

    Or how about:

    // Bob Martel isn't at the company anymore, so I can safely say that this is the worse piece of shit code I've ever seen. I'll rewrite it when I get a chance

    Not to mention potentially plagiarized code, or patent violations, or any number of other nastiness buried in the code. Sure, it *probably* doesn't contain any of the above, but do you really want to scan through all two million lines of it just to make sure?

    Further, every time somebody wants to see my source code, I find myself preparing it a little more thoroughly. Removing a few of those ugly hacks, documenting the ones I can't remove ... sort of like quickly straightening up the house before visitors show up. I don't want people seeing my dirty laundry. If I don't have time to straighten up, I'd rather not let people in at all.

    Source code is the same way -- you generally don't want other people looking over it until you've had a chance to clean it up a little bit. If you don't want to clean it up, you just don't release it. Releasing source code *always* costs time and money to a corporation.
  • ``Giving away the software of failed companies could turn every corporate failure into a disaster for everyone else.''

    Heh. From what I've seen of failed companies or read about their failures, not that many failed as a result of poor software (or any other product). Rather some spectacular administrative screwup, boneheaded marketing decisions, or just bad timing seems to have been more at fault.

    Heck, if bad software could sink a company, Microsoft would have been history over a decade ago.

    IMHO, turning over the software assets of failed companies to some site that would make them available to all-comers for inspection and cannibalization would be great. Sort of a farewell gift:

    ``Hey! We couldn't figure out how to make a go of it with this software. But, we still think it's great and maybe someone else can find a way to get it into users' hands. Enjoy!''

    (My pessimistic side senses that this'll never happen as some lawyers will find a way to make it impossible.)

  • For much historically-interesting software, hobbyist-type licenses are available. (No, it's not always open source, and it's not always public-domain, but it's a start.)

    See for example the massive collection of PDP-10 (the architecture that the Arpanet and early TCP/IP stuff was done on, and certainly the source of much of the hacker culture [tuxedo.org]) software at

    The PDP-10 Software Archive [trailing-edge.com]
    or the large number of historically interesting OS's and tools (including many early Unix releases [pups.org]) that you can run on

    That said, these only scratch the surface of vitally interesting stuff that needs to be preserved, so anything to further similar projects is 100% goodness.

  • Be, Inc just got bought by Palm, Inc. BeOS was a great software product, and now probably has no use to Palm anyway. People are petitioning for its source code to be released.

    The problem with this is licensing conflicts. I'm sure it would take a lot of work to just strip out the code that can be released without being sued. Plus go through all the mundane release procedures, prepare announcements, package the code, etc. I know Palm doesn't want to invest man-hours into that, for basically no reason but a small group of peoples' affection.

    Too bad things have to be so difficult...
  • I reject the notion that as a creator of code, I have an obligation to release this to the public if it becomes obsolete. It may be generous, it may be a good thing to do, but the proposition that I am obligated to do so is ludicrous.

    And frankly, I find Tim O'Reilly's constant railing on the open source issue to be quite hypocritical. Almost all his books, it seems are under a license which would be roundly discredited if they were code, and I doubt that all his older books are all available for free. If O'Reilly believes so strongly in openness, why not release electronic copies of ALL his books, under a GPL-style license ? What makes book publishing so fundamentally different than publishing software ? Is it that he is making a pretty penny selling books to the crowd that is producing and studying this open source code ?
  • Suddenly, the market climate changes dramatically. A product similar to mine is available to consumers for free! Ironically, the failure of my competitor is likely to kill my company, too -- EVEN IF MY PRODUCT IS SUPERIOR.

    I'm surprised that Brett's caps didn't trigger the lameness filter (I don't know if it will as I'm typing this.) Anyway, the reason he types in all caps is that he wants you to consider his conclusion rather than the logical conclusion of his argument. He implies that the best products will be less popular, hence reducing the quality of software in general. That's not correct. The correct conclusion is:

    Now:
    Firms charge users the value their software adds.

    Recycle-world:
    firms charge users the difference in value created between their product and the best free alternatives.

Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn't have to do it himself. -- A.H. Weiler

Working...