The discussion turned, as it occasionally does, to licensing and philosophy. (This is what happens when you hang out with smart people who also care about the subject.) I may have surprised a couple of them by saying, fire-breathing zealot for freedom that I am, that I don’t particularly care about the mythical software as a service loophole.)
It’s a Service
I don’t particularly care what software my accountant, dentist, insurance agent, barber, or mechanic uses. I don’t use that software. I don’t use it directly. If I want to change how it works (assuming it’s free software and I can get a copy of the source code!), I still have to convince my service provider to accept my patch. There’s a distinct barrier between me and the software–a service barrier, if you will.
I do hope that good software exists that respects their freedoms and that they have the freedom to run in if they choose, but I hold that hope for everyone, regardless of my relationship with them.
I don’t care how my accountant figures my taxes, as long as he does it correctly. He could do it by hand, late at night, wearing a green eye shade and scribbling in a leather-bound ledger. The mechanism by which he does so is unimportant. The results are important.
Similarly, I don’t care how Google finds results for my search queries. They could do it with interns and a very fast card catalog if they wanted. The mechanism by which they do so is unimportant.
The software is incidental to the service. That’s an important point, because the software any service provider uses only registers in my list of concerns with it intersects with a much more interesting topic.
Data and Privacy are More Important
I do care whether my accountant keeps my financial information private.
I do care whether I can extract my money from my bank.
I do care whether Google retains personally identifying information from my searches and reports suspicious behavior to credit agencies, Major League Baseball, or No Such Agency.
None of these have anything in particular to do with software. Yes, software can make certain things easier, but I expect service providers to do no evil even if they could do evil very efficiently with MapReduce.
None of these have anything to do with the relative success or failure of a business model, either. If my accountant were my cousin in business school, I’d hold him to the same standards with regard to privacy and accuracy as I would a CPA with 30 years of experience. (I just wouldn’t have my aunt go down and pick up the CPA by the ear.)
The Importance of Being Upstream
There’s one case where I do care about what a service provider does with software, and that’s where I’m part of the development group for that software. In that case, I expect users of the software to report bugs, request features, and send back patches and local modifications.
None of that is a license requirement. (In truth, I don’t believe such license requirements are possible, nor desirable. As much as I might like to prohibit the use of my software by people dedicated to erasing the memory of Emperor Norton I of the United States from history, I can’t do it in a fair and equitable way, so I don’t even worry about it.) It’s a pragmatic belief that working with a community eventually produces better software than working in several silos and fiefdoms.
… but if an organization wants to work on its own, it has that right. It needs to let its users know to report bugs to them, not upstream, but any organization willing to go without upstream support has the right to do so, even if it’s not a good idea.
Now there’s an important discussion about the relationship between companies making money thanks to the clever use of free software and the communities developing such software… but that’s a different story altogether. After all, if I cared about the commercial value of the software, I wouldn’t have released it under a license that allows anyone with the hint of a business plan to try to build commercial value from it.