This may not be a very structured post, because I am thinking out loud into the blog. Sorry about that in advance.
Back in January I was pondering what sort of software licence to use. I linked to an article by Dan Bricklin which reflected most of my views about the licence choices available to small independent software vendors like Macrobug.
I keep a fairly close eye on developments with software licences. Yet I still haven’t made up my mind about what to use for Macrobug products!
The options are:
- Fully closed proprietary licence. The user has no access to source code, and no rights to distribute binaries. There are probably two licences; one for a time-limited evaluation version and one for the paid-for version.
- Shareware-type licence. The user can distribute the binaries, but must pay me if they use them for more than, say, 30 days. The user gets no access to source code.
- Dan Bricklin-type licence. The user gets source code and binaries, can distribute and modify them, but any recipient of any version has to pay Macrobug as if they had received the software directly from us.
- Fully open-source licence. The user gets the source code, and is free to do what they want with it. Macrobug gets an income from supporting the code and being the best in the marketplace at working with that code, customising it etc.
Obviously there’s a spectrum here between restrictive and open licences. Open licences, which give the users more rights, will be more popular with those users. But they also present more risk for Macrobug.
I am fairly certain that option 4 is a no-go at the moment. My personal view (and therefore that of Macrobug!) is that open source is usually the right business decision for commodity products: things which will be used by many, many people. In that case, the economically correct course of action is to share efforts by contributing to a common codebase rather than spending lots of money creating/paying for competing products. But there’s no role in that model for anyone to make a living providing such software; the whole point is that the users of the software co-operate to create it. And for more specialised products, where there aren’t enough users to co-operate to produce the software, having a single commercial software provider remains the sensible model. I feel Macrobug’s debugging tools fit into that category… which is fortunate because, as I say, I don’t see a role for anyone to make a living producing open source software. I almost believe I could make a living out of supporting/customising/developing the software if it were open source, but not quite. I’d like to move to this model in the future, though, if I start to believe it could work.
Concerning options 1 and 2, are there really many differences these days? I’ll be making a time-limited evaluation version freely downloadable from the Macrobug website (of that much I am certain). So, does the user gain anything by being able to distribute the binaries as opposed to get them from the Macrobug website? Probably not. The advantages of option 1 are that I have marginally more visibility over who gets the software, and maybe I stand a better chance of being able easily to lock down the evaluation version to the time limit. And I suspect people are less likely to feel they should pay for something with the word or concept ‘shareware’ attached. So, I’d argue that options 1 and 2 are basically the same, and I’d be best off treating it as option 1 rather than a shareware product I want people to distribute themselves.
I really like option 3. The main problem here is the complexity/expense/risk involved in creating such a licence. All the other types are available for download. I could try to throw together such a licence myself (= mistakes, risk) or pay a lawyer to do it for me (= enormous expense). I’m also not sure it’ll be that appealing to customers: even though they should be happy about receiving the source code, the fact that it’s an unusual approach would in itself put them off. So I think I am going to rule out option 3.
So where does that leave me? As far as I can tell, it leaves me – for now – releasing under a proprietary commercial licence. Bummer!
I must admit I haven’t entirely convinced myself of that decision. I was hoping that by the end of this blog post I’d have properly made up my mind. Ah well, it seems – sadly – to be the logical thing to do, for now at least.
PS In addition, when talking about software licencing we almost always read and see American licences, e.g. the GPL. So much so, that I almost always type ‘license’ not ‘licence’ and keep having to correct myself to British English…