[oclug] Semi-[OT]: Source code ethical dilemma

Adrian Irving-Beer wisq-oclug at wisq.net
Sun Sep 18 21:44:50 EDT 2005

On Mon, Sep 19, 2005 at 01:13:11AM +0000, Greg wrote:

> Unless there was an enforceable EULA which you haven't told
> us about.

None; this program was essentially freeware and was distributed on
those terms.  It was one of those "post a URL to a public forum for
people to use" sorts of things.  And forget fancy webpages; this was
basically a link to each version of the executable.  We're talking
single person effort here, not Microsoft or IBM, or even a small
development shop.

> I think the obfuscation implies dishonesty.

This is debatable.  The obfuscation was a function of a standard third-
party program used to convert the interpreted script, plus interpreter
and supporting GUI modules, into a simple executable package.

Obviously, the third-party executable-making program serves two
purposes: Make your program easy to use by anyone, and make it hard to
access the source.  They primarily advertise the former.  The latter
is generally unstated and left to the user's imagination, probably
because the security provided by the obfuscation is so laughable that
advertising it would be a legal liability.

Given the nature of the GPLed program it was supporting, and the
average knowledge level of its intended audience, a self-contained
executable is the most appropriate medium of distribution.  The
obfuscation was not necessarily a direct choice made by the author.

> A paranoid would never have inserted those liberal terms in the
> first place.

To me, given the above, the terms seem to indicate he either expected
to release the source at some point, or expected someone to retrieve
the source from the executable.

> The moral question is more interesting.  We start with the ambiguity
> of the liberal copyright concealed by trivial obfuscation.  Then, it
> is hard to say from here whether you hesitate to ask because you
> suspect the legitimacy of the putative owner or because you distrust
> his/her stability.  (I certainly do not advise you to declare
> which.. only to know which.)

I still haven't said specifically what this is about, nor have I done
the deed, nor do I know that the deed would be illegal.  So I'll
continue to explain the situation in general terms for discussion,
without placing myself at risk unless I do choose to make the release.

I am relatively certain of the legitimacy of the author.  The coding
style was identical throughout the program -- much to my original
chagrin, as I didn't like it.  The author responded to requests and
announced features and versions available at the same URLs.  The
utility has such a specific audience that if he was going to rip it
off someone else's work, we would have undoubtedly heard about that
previous work.  If we had not, said original work would have been a
useless effort.

My (moral) hesitation primarily stems simply from not knowing whether
the author obfuscated because he was trying to be helpful to the users
and simply overlooked the source release (perhaps would have sent it
on demand), or because he did not intend to release the source (yet?).

> Is this a nice guy/gal? nice abs? sweet disposition? worthy soul? 
> benevolent but bent? to whom you wish to be nice in return?

Eh.  I don't even know the person.  All I know is he made this utility
and released it to the community for free (albeit in binary-only
form), then disappeared, leaving it maintainerless.  My only
judgements are thus "wanted to help (or gain attention)" and
"presumably did not anticipate his own departure or the need for
source code in the long run".

> If Chairman Bill were claiming this code (and assuming importance, 
> critical mass, etc), there would be already a FOSS project.  Perhaps 
> clean-room, perhaps not.  Maybe people thought it was already?

It's a <100k script with only a few thousand lines.  We're not
talking "GIMP killer" here. ;)

My resulting implementation has actually reduced the total size by
over 10% while increasing the lines and adding features, because the
new code is substantially more modularised and streamlined.

Thankfully, my implementation has also spread it out into multiple
files.  I can essentially guarantee personal ownership of those
additional files and many of the subroutines in the original.  If I
need to do a remake, I already have a large personally-owned base to
work with.

But to me, severing all ties with the old program actually feels
*less* ethical than using it, because I've now used his program a
workhorse and a basis and an inspiration, and just replaced a few bits
to avoid having to follow the terms or give copyright notice.
(Obviously, I would still give credit to it along those lines.)
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