Negative to Positive: Interview with Mayan Developer Roberto Rosario

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GPL Violation

The Powerbase: Last summer, Mayan was the center of a pretty heated debate in the FOSS community. You raised a complaint about groups forking Mayan and attempting to claim it was their original creation and charging a per-seat licensing fee. Forking a GPL project, and even charging money for it, is allowed; but claiming it as your own and not citing the original developer(s) is indeed a violation. Where you surprised when you started getting negative feedback from the community over this issue?

Roberto: The Free software, Open source and Mayan communities were nothing but incredibility supportive.  The negative feedback as excepted came from consumers of Open source software.  The type of users that like Open source software because it gives them good stuff for free but that really didn’t understood the importance of protecting the software and the importance of software licensing, Free software in this case.  So in that regards negative feedback was expected, the volume of the attention and opinions, that blew my head off :) I never expected so many people to be interested in the issue or to come to the defense of the project.

The Powerbase: You decided from the start not to name the groups that where violating Mayan’s license. Why didn’t you name them? Are you still happy with that decision?

Roberto: The choice of not naming the violations was based on two things: an effort to keep communication channels open and to give myself one last leverage point in case everything else failed.  Am I happy with the decision?  Very, the strategy worked well and all license violations (and many more I wasn’t aware of) were resolved.  No software company who takes it’s reputation seriously wants to be labeled as a license violator, something companies and lobbying groups spend millions of dollars themselves trying to have their customers and users not do.

The Powerbase: Your immediate reaction to the issue was to make the development branch of Mayan private so that these other groups wouldn’t be able to create forks based on the latest code. Again the community was very vocal, some claimed it was against the GPL to close development; and yet the GPL makes no provision on how software is developed, only on how it is released and distributed, so again you were in the right. Thinking back on it now, do you still believe it was the right move to close the development branch of Mayan during this debate?

Roberto: It was not an immediate reaction, I tried the diplomatic road first.  The problems was not that there were several license violations, the problem was that the worst of the violations were outside North American and EU jurisdiction, so from the legal perspective it was an uphill battle with no chance of success, so I was pretty much on my own.  After contacting the companies several times and being ignored, I decided to think outside the box and do what they wouldn’t expect: keep all releases intact (which is what the majority of users needed) but cut access to the development version thus cutting the supply of new code which was what they were using in their ‘improved’ versions.

The Powerbase: The debate over Mayan is an excellent example of the confusion about FOSS licenses like the GPL, and what they do and do not allow. Does it concern you that so many people, even within the FOSS community, didn’t fully understand the license well enough to know what was and was not a violation in this case?

Roberto: I’m not that concerned about full licensing understanding and on the contrary I’m actually happy with how the FOSS community has grown and I’m very optimistic about it’s future.  You usually need a few basic things to move forwards no matter the enterprise: passion, attitude and knowledge.  The passion is already there and it has brought a lot of awareness about licensing.  The knowledge is there too, licensing information is easily available, not so easily digestible but is getting there.  The decline over the number of new licenses being created is also a good indication that everybody is understanding the current licenses available and not trying to re invent the wheel.  The attitude, that needs work.  The FOSS community is in its teenage years so a good deal of the conversations about licensing just degrade into a debate over ‘this license is better than that one’ without really understanding them, that fan boy attitude in my opinion is what’s wrong right now.  But a good indication how far we’ve come is that even non FOSS developers and users know that several Free and Open source licenses exists.  That alone makes me very optimistic.

The Powerbase: Once the issue was out in the open, how well did things progress in dealing with the groups who where in violation? Did you find that they were willing to work on a solution, or was it difficult to get them to take the situation seriously?

Roberto: It’s very hard to know someone’s true initial intentions but speaking on how everyone reacted to the situation (once the issue was made public of course) they were all very willing to work on a solution. Afterwards many new groups wrote asking for compliance certification just to be on the safe side, that shows how serious everybody took the issue.

A Silver Lining

The Powerbase: You eventually found that one of the reasons groups where claiming they wrote Mayan was because it put them in a better position to sell support and services for it. Realizing that, you made changes in the way you managed the project to make it clear that you personally offered commercial services for Mayan. Have you found this to be successful? Is Mayan now more commercially successful than it was before this debate went public?

Roberto: Yes, that was a very important lesson: In the world of FOSS software users will usually prefers commercial services directly from the software creator or from those directly related to the software creation themselves. Sounds obvious, but it wasn’t so, at least not to me at the time. I thought that distancing my commercial offerings from the project and creating a level playing field was better for the users.

In the face of this new demand, I ramped up my offerings from professional services to a full blown startup named Documen.to (meaning Document in English). As soon as I founded Documen.to started the knowledge transfer with consultants to be able to manage the sudden surge of support and contracts requests. After just two months Documen.to started attracting investors, and shortly afterwards was acquired by RTM Corporation in Puerto Rico, the company which has been supporting and fostering Mayan’s growth from day 1.

The Powerbase: They say that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and as long as people are talking about at topic, it’s good advertisement. Has that been your experience in this case? Did interest in Mayan increase because of the GPL debate?

Roberto: Yes, interest on the project surged incredibly, this resulted in more users, more contributions, and more mind share   Thanks to this the community around Mayan is maturing faster along with the project itself, to a point where there is the possibility of creating a non profit foundation in the future for me to hand over control and copyrights to manage the project and ensure its continuity.

The Powerbase: By all accounts, you took a very public debate over the GPL (where many claimed you were in the wrong) and turned it around into a successful enterprise. Has this experience changed your belief in FOSS? Do you have more faith in it than you did before? Less?

Roberto: Yes it has immensely changed by my belief in FOSS.  I was already convinced it was a good philosophy, but I learned first hand just how good it protects your project.  FOSS licences may have been called viral in the negative sense, but I think that is a good thing because unlike other licenses meant to the protect the author, FOSS licences are meant to protect the code itself, and by attaching themselves to the code and derivatives they can continue protecting it even when you are not around to do so.  The GPL in this case is so good at protecting code, that it does so from the author itself.

Advice

The Powerbase: It sounds like things have worked out very well for you in the end, but is there anything about the license dispute that you would go back and change if you could?

Roberto: There are some things I would do different in the future but I wouldn’t change anything that has happened so far.  It has been an incredible journey, I have learned a lot from it and encourage everybody to continue learning more about FOSS, not just the software but also the philosophy. FOSS has a lot to offer in terms of legal protections, economic opportunities and community development, that might not be apparent at first glance until you delve into it, do so today.

The Powerbase: What advice would you have for other developers who are worried about their FOSS code being abused like Mayan was? Or even for developers who might currently be facing a possible GPL violation in regards to one of their projects?

Roberto: While the GPL was created to be a license and not a contract, and thus only enforceable under Copyright law, there are many jurisdictions that make no difference between both licenses and contract, hence it can also be enforce as a contract as well as a license in many places. Also always remember a license is a license is a license meaning no terms or circumstances can change it’s nature once it has been accepted by the recipient, if someone uses GPL software they are bound inexorably to it’s terms no matter what. Even when people have tried to interpret OSS licences as just contracts and not licenses, meaning they can be altered by special circumstances the Federal Circuit upheld the contrary (Jacobsen v. Katzer) and OSS licences are in fact licences and thus enforceable at all times, period.

Open = Secure, be public, the ‘many eyes’ philosophy is not just for the code, is a philosophy for everything. Let everyone know what you are going through and just like a software bug you didn’t spot finds a coder to squash it, there is bound to be someone, somewhere in the world with the solution to your legal problem. FOSS has permeated in many places and has many friends the Free Software Foundation is one of many and they will even help you for free.

FOSS is not only a community ideal but also a very good commercial system, which was something I’ve only read about before Mayan, but now I’ve experienced it and seen first hand that it’s much easier to bootstrap a FOSS project that a commercial one. Software products have problems finding revenue channels, the problem with FOSS licensed products by their open nature is that they have too many revenue channels, but that is a good problem to have :)


Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: www.digifail.com .

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