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lynx-dev Licensing Lynx: Summary

From: Brett Glass
Subject: lynx-dev Licensing Lynx: Summary
Date: Tue, 05 Oct 1999 06:34:56 -0600

Well, I and my fellow developers have reviewed the online responses regarding the possibility of licensing the Lynx code for the past several days, and have come to some conclusions, which are summarized in this message. (I'll draw from several postings to this list in this response.)

As those who have followed this thread will recall, I and a group of programmer acquaintances, having watched the problems a blind friend had with the Web, seek to produce a Web browser that's truly friendly to the visually impaired. Since it's unrealistic to expect that such a product would earn much money, we expect to earn minimum wage, or perhaps less, for our efforts --- but do need this much income to provide necessary support services such as telephone help. (Clearly, a blind user can't turn to the Internet for help if the browser is not working.)

Just as others have looked toward published, freely available source code such as the Berkeley TCP/IP stack -- which effectively enabled the Internet -- to avoid reinventing the wheel, we sought to turn to Lynx for some of the code we needed.

Some of those involved with Lynx development welcomed our efforts, but a few vociferous ones have decried them. These people seem to have adopted Richard Stallman's extremely negative view that allowing one's work to be used by someone who derives any form of income from it -- however slight or necessary -- it is somehow "selling out." (This despite the fact that we weren't asking for "something for nothing" but rather offering to compensate authors for the use of their code if they so desired.)

It appears that, sadly, Stallman has managed to convince some credulous souls -- via questionable rhetoric -- that it's evil to be paid for one's work if that work happens to be selling software. As David Wooley put it in one posting:

>If people do decide to sell out on this one (and I suspect not enough
>will) remember that the value of the code to him is probably comparable to
>the labour costs in recreating it together with overheads (payroll tax,
>office space, development hardware).  Although he could develop it himself
>for a similar cost, he would not get to market as quickly and the risks
>would be higher than starting from largely written and tested code.  What
>you would be selling is not the code but a reduction in risk and a quicker
>time to market; and of coarse the ability to profit from his proprietory
>additions.  (You would be no more selling the code than Red Hat sell
>Linux or Microsoft sell Windows 98.)

In other words, it's useful for programmers to stand on one anothers' shoulders instead of -- as Brian Reid once quipped -- one another's feet. Unfortunately, Stallman's GPL actually prevents good work from taking place by locking programmers away from useful code -- creating an "artificial scarcity" (something which Stallman, ironically, decries). In this case, in particular, it goes even farther: it impairs the development of a useful tool for a group of people (the blind and visually impaired) who have expressed a real need for it on this list. As Janina Sajka points out:

>The problems you list are not just problems with Lynx. They show up in all
>kinds of applications that blind users have used for many years. This is
>why the various screen readers have developed strategies to handle them
>properly. My Lynx, for example, does not read the status line unless I ask
>for it. It also does not speak the name of the link I'm leaving as I arrow

Karen Lewellen notes that there are problems with RealAudio (which won't work from DOS) and with some screen readers which rely on the PC BIOS:

>I am a blind user and have used lynx either as a part of delphi, or more
>recently as a stand alone driver for a few years.  I know i am only just
>begining to tap into its features, from the stand alone aspect, but the only
>problem i have had, is not really a problem, just a wish.  many programs
>write to the bios, allowing speech to be automatic.  I would love lynx to do
>this, saving me the time in using full screen commands.
>on a different note, can lynx deal with real audio?

This is another common problem, and one of many we'd love to do something about. However, it does require the licensing of code from Real Networks, and we would (naturally) not have the right to reveal the source for the licensed code. Thus, instead of producing a positive outcome for anyone (most especially the blind community), adherents of Stallman's agenda throw a stumbling block on the way. So eager are they to condemn such efforts, despite our good intentions, that we see assertions such as the following, from Kim DeVaughn:

>Seems like just an opportunistic "code grab" in an attempt to get some
>sort "enhanced", "blind-friendly" product to market with an FCS (First
>Customer Ship) date right around the time the Fed's new rules are to go
>into effect.
>Developing such an app from scratch to meet such a ship-date, is obviously
>not a feasible undertaking ... hence the attempt to co-opt the lynx source.
>But perhaps I'm just being overly cynical ... but I doubt it ...

In fact, the Federal guidelines refer to the construction of Web *pages*, not web *browsers*. Little work is being done to make truly accessible browsers for the blind. However, such cynicism is poisonous to efforts to remedy the problem.

A few people on the list have even gone as far as to take pride in their desire to sabotage our efforts. Philip Webb writes (to Richard Stallman) that "you will be very proud of us all [for attempting to block efforts to produce this product]".

The GPL, alas, is designed as a weapon to accomplish just this end. As David Wooley writes:

>Commercial prices are set by what the market will bear.  He has already more
>or less admitted that Lynx is in a monopoly position.

This is another unfortunate consequence of the GPL: It is likely to be better, in fact, than Microsoft at creating entrenched monopolies. (GCC, which is in the process of monopolizing the compiler market even though there are superior commercial products, is an excellent example of a product which is not as good as what is produced commercially but undermines these productive and creative endeavors.) Like Microsoft, it gives away products to destroy programmers' livelihoods. All of us -- whether users or professional developers -- lose when this happens. We become, in fact, more "stuck" than many users currently are with Windows.

Ironically, Richard Stallman refuses to acknowledge that the GPL uses Microsoft's own tactics. He writes:

>If a company develops proprietary software, then whether it be small,
>large, or in between, it is not contributing to our community.  If
>they compete with Microsoft by behaving like Microsoft, that doesn't
>make free software any better.

If Richard were truly to take his notions regarding comment to heart, he would not advocate the use of the GPL to undermine creative efforts to develop commercial software -- open source or otherwise.

Which is what the GPL does. The GPL, in fact, violates the Open Source Definition by discriminating against a particular field of endeavor -- in this case, professional software development.

As for the legal status of Lynx: At least some of the source files that comprise Lynx (though, thankfully, not all of it) appears to be legitimately licensed under the GPL, though the package as a whole cannot be. (Bellcore and CERN/W3C would be within their rights to protest the release of the code under the GPL if they so desired, but only they -- not a third party -- would have a cause of action.) Nonetheless, the GPL accomplishes its "poisoning the well" effect in that the addition of GPLed code muddies the legal status of the whole and hides authorship. (This, too, is inimical to the interests of programmers; since they're not being paid for code they allow to be freely reused, they should at least be given credit.)

Under the circumstances, however, it appears that a few approaches to the problem are still on solid legal ground. We can use the Bellcore and CERN code without impediments, and are still soliciting the use of other parts of Lynx for which authorship is clearly defined. (If anyone who is reading this list would be willing to license substantial modules of code which he or she has contributed -- anything other than the screen rendering code -- we are still interested.) We may hire programmers to "clean room" some of the code whose status is less clear, and will almost certainly have to rewrite the rest. Fortunately, DEC/Compaq -- an "evil" distributor of "proprietary" software -- has been very generous with information and sample code for one particular group of output devices (the DecTalk line of speech devices), and this will help us. Creative Labs -- another group which Stallman would surely condemn -- has also been helpful.

The blind, as a rule, don't have great financial resources (as a previous poster mentioned, some 60-70% cannot even find employment), so none of what we're doing is any sort of "get rich quick" scheme. We'll probably lose money on whatever we do (if we can make minimum wage for our efforts, or enough to hire some full-time telephone people, we'll be happy). And the prospects for upfront funding are bleak. (A few groups have said they MIGHT buy the finished product if they get some funds for it.) So, the GPL and the hostile, spiteful attitude behind it (originally spawned by resentment of commercial spinoffs of taxpayer-funded academic work at MIT) are particularly damaging in this case.

In short, Richard, you've done a great deal to impede an effort to benefit a group of people who are in real need.

I hope you're proud of yourself.

--Brett Glass

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