Langa Letter: Why Freeware's A Solution, Not A Problem - InformationWeek
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Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: Why Freeware's A Solution, Not A Problem

Open-source, GPL, and other forms of freeware sometimes run afoul of myopic company licensing standards. But any organization that's cutting itself off from GPL and other legitimate forms of licensed freeware is seriously hurting its own business, Fred Langa says.

Hi Fred - Many of us are employed deep within corporate IT departments; I'm actually a Regional Chief Technology Officer. Like everyone else, we, too, have our share of the "effects" of spyware, or better yet, I like the term.... "cr*pware". For home users, it's easy to use the free-to-use products, but that's not so easy for corporate or government users. We seriously enforce software licensing; thus, without purchase, most all of the anti-spyware products cannot be used.

Purchasing itself isn't the issue, but we don't like to buy licenses one by one. I'd like to find an enterprise solution where seat licensing is more affordable. However, our experience is that no one product usually seems to be enough. It often takes a combination of two or three products to clean a system once it has fallen victim, occasionally more. Of course, if my pockets were deeper, an enterprise license for several products might be what's necessary. However, my pockets aren't deep.

What's your suggestion for the corporate world? Do we use the hosts file route which, by the way, I have used on my kids' systems, for all systems and then use software products for cleaning problem machines? What kind of performance hit does a system take with thousands of lines in a hosts file? What to do, what to do....

Thanks, Dan Greeley

It's one thing to require that all commercial software be bought and paid for--that's a good thing! But any organization that explicitly prohibits all noncommercial software--"without purchase ... products cannot be used"--simply is crippling itself. That kind of rule, if uniformly enforced, would make your business unable to use any open-source software, or any software issued under the GPL Gnu Public License or any freeware whatsoever. This could include many distributions of Linux; most popular Web-server software; office suites like OpenOffice; browsers like Mozilla/Firefox; languages like Perl and so on.

In two words: That's nuts.

There's plenty of high-quality free and very low-cost software available that can do just what you want and more; totally legitimately, legally, and under license. However, the licensing may not be in a form immediately familiar to whoever's setting your software purchasing rules. I fully realize that changing a bureaucratic mindset can be very difficult, so let's look at some of the less-familiar forms of licensing in the hopes of providing you with the ammunition you need to get this type of software on the "approved" list. We'll then look at the separate issue of using the "Hosts" file as a security tool.

The Gnu Public License (GPL)
The Gnu Public License (GPL) is a totally valid, totally legitimate form of copyright. It actually begins with a completely standard copyright, same as any other software, but then formally and legally codifies the user's rights to copy, share, and redistribute the software; or to alter and extend the software in a legally stringent way. Despite what some people think, GPL is not a lesser form of licensing, but actually is a kind of "copyright plus." The thinking that "software that doesn't cost money up front cannot be legitimately licensed" is simply wrong. GPL software is fully licensed, just differently.

The "Dedication" License
There are other forms of software licensing, too. For example, the highly regarded Spybot Search And Destroy anti-spyware tool--a tool I enthusiastically recommend--ships with a form of public license that simply states: "I grant you the license to use Spybot-S&D as much as you like." There are no usage restrictions whatsoever, and that includes use in enterprises, governments, and the like. The author didn't use the Gnu Public License because he wants his software left as-is (the GPL grants rights to modify the software); so the author of SpyBot S&D crafted a license that allows for unlimited use and redistribution of his unmodified code.

The license is unusual in that it includes a personal dedication; and in that the software author accepts (but doesn't require) voluntary donations. But this quirky license is just as valid and just as binding as a dense, legalese, multipage license from Microsoft, Sun, IBM, or anyone else. You can see the full Spybot S&D license here. It's actually rather refreshing to read--a warm and human document radically different from but no less valid than conventional licensing documentation.

In short: There's no reason whatsoever for any business or government to prohibit, a priori, the use of an excellent tool like Spybot.

What About "Voluntary" Contributions?
Because a license document is legally binding on all parties, if an author says that no payment or purchase is necessary, that is in fact true whether you're installing the software on one system or 10,000. There's no catch or gotcha lurking there to trip up commercial installations.

Take the case of Spybot S&D, for example: You can use it on your own system, or post it on a corporate server and install it companywide on every PC in the enterprise; all for free. That's what the license says.

Of course, software costs time and money to produce, so if you think enough of a software tool to deploy it, it makes sense to help ensure the ongoing viability of the software publisher by offering at least a modicum of support. For a large shop, $1 per seat--or even 50 cents per seat--would be welcomed by the author. For smaller shops, a few dollars per seat would be great.

In any case, let your budget and your conscience be your guide: If you can't afford anything, that's fine (and totally legitimate). But if you can afford even a modest payment, it's smart business to help keep the software's author in operation.

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