When Open, Cross-Platform Tools Aren’t

One of the myths I tell myself is that by trying to only use tools that are free to download, based on open source code and work cross-platform in the sense of working on both Windows and Macs (I tend to assume if it runs on a Mac, it’ll also run on Linux), I’m choosing tools to use tools that anyone will be able to use.

This casual thinking is compounded both by working in the education sector, and by the “personal research: label I apply to much of what I do. That is, I don’t work for a private company to use these tools to produce something that will be sold for profit.

So when I read Martin Belam’s review of the FT’s Emily Cadnam’s thoughts on data journalism in a news:rewired panel last week, I was bumped into rethinking things:

Along the way she made a little point with a big implication, certainly one that doesn’t always occur to me. Because the FT is a paid for product, they are actually restricted from using a lot of open source and free tools from the web, which have licenses that forbid commercial use. As an unintended consequence of having a website with a subscription model, they’ve had to make their own versions of several fundamental tools that others might take for granted.

Hmmm… so which of the tools and techniques that I try to advocate are actually closed for journalistic use in commercial contexts?

PS Thinks: when I download and use a software tool, accepting terms and license of use conditions as I do so, under what legal framework does the tool publisher claim ownership of the software application and the right to issue and enforce the license conditions or terms of use? Copyright applies to the source code, and I guess the compiled code? So to the extent that a musician may own copyeight over an expression (recording) of a song, maybe a software publisher owns copyright in the executable version of a piece of software, and running that application is like listening to a piece of recorded music. And just as you are limited in the extent to which you can play recorded music (not to a large audience, for example?) presumably similar conditions can be made to apply to the use to which you put a piece of software? (See for example, The Closed Route to Open Data.)

If the route is by copyright, then is there any notion of a fair dealing exception in the use of tools for the purpose of reporting the news?! (A ludicrous thought, but I thought I’d capture it anyway…;-)

PPS Hmmm, I wonder.. I can imagine patent trolls thinking this through…:

  • teach a man to fish, get a royalty payment each time he catches one;
  • sell a man a fishing rod, get a royalty payment each time he catches a fish;
  • sell a man a fishing rod, get a royalty payment each time he uses it;
  • teach a man the idea of fishing, get a royalty payment every time he catches a fish;
  • teach a man the idea of fishing, get a royalty payment every time he catches anything (use of idea in derived work..);

There must be an edu-startup killer trollable patent in there somewhere?!;-)


  1. Joss

    I’ve never come across open source software or even free Copyleft software that prevented commercial use. It sounds like they misunderstand what open source actually refers to. What commonly used open source license prevents commercial use? At the most, Copyleft requires re-users to license derivative software under the same terms. Nothing to do with money.

    • Tony Hirst

      @joss I will try to explore this a bit more – I agree that open source definitions should not restrict use (eg http://opensource.org/faq#commercial )… One issue might be a conflation of tools and data they hook in to; for example, Google geocoding (eg in Fusion Tables) has terms and conditions that limit how you can display results (I think they have to be displayed on a Google map? There may be additional conditions… Also, things like Google Fusion Tables don’t provide the map view to Google Apps account holders by default, only on request.) Another might relate to the integration of open source code and proprietary code in order to automate workflows? A third is that lots of software licenses also include “not intended for use” clauses (eg suggesting software shouldn’t be used in safety critical systems), though I don’t know if such things are/can fairly be included to limit use by commercial companies?

      That said, if there is a perception that tools can’t be used in a commercial setting, and that perception prevents installation or use of particular open-source tools, that’s also an issue???