The Web is the Ultimate Copy Protection

Posted 18 Dec 2000 at 01:02 UTC by goingware Share This

When a user uses a web application hosted on a server, he does not possess the executable binary (let alone the source) of the program and will lose access to the application if the provider goes out of business or decides not to host it anymore. This is the real threat of Microsoft's .NET initiative and "thin-client" computing.

The GNU General Public License typically does not apply to web applications because they are not actually distributed. We need a new license to ensure our code remains truly free in the face of server-based applications.

I should more properly say "web applications are given the ultimate copy protection as a result of being deployed on servers rather than user machines" but that wouldn't fit in the subject line (and isn't nearly as pithy).

When you install a binary executable application on your computer, whether it is free or proprietary, you have the actual executable program yourself. In general, you don't need to be hooked up to the net to run the program.

But if you use an application which is hosted on a web server, you don't possess even the executable - you only have the ability to submit input to it and receive output from it, you don't even do the processing yourself, that's done on the server.

If the company that hosts the web application should go out of business, "upgrade" to a version that no longer serves your needs, or decides that it no longer serves its business purpose to provide the web application, you are out of luck.

This may not be a big deal if the web application is something for which there is ready competition (like stock quotes) or something you don't really depend on (like idle amusement). But if it is something you depend on for your daily work or well-being, then you're really in a jam.

For example, there are now companies that provide small business bookkeeping over the web. Sure this would be handy, especially if you travel and don't always have your work machine with you, but imagine what a fix you'd be in if this service went south on you.

Even with a proprietary program, you still have the original installation media to use in case you need to reinstall it after the publisher goes bust. While you won't get new support and features on a closed-source product, it will at least continue to work until changes to your underlying operating system or other applications it must interface with make it eventually incompatible. I've got lots of programs on my Mac from the 1980's that still run just fine.

Some web applications such as the slashcode are written in open source, and many libraries for web apps are too such as the Apache XML Project, as well as some important servers like Apache itself.

But much of the source for web applications are provided with licenses such as the Apache License that allow for closed-source distribution of binaries, and - here's the catch - even if you license your own web application source code under the GPL, for someone simply to run a web application doesn't count as distribution - therefore the GPL's requirement to provide source does not apply!

I should note that many people who work on open source projects are supportive of their work being used in closed-source form. The license you contribute code under should be very much a matter of personal choice, or corporate policy.

Many of the corporate contributors to open source are much more comfortable with the Apache or Mozilla license - the Xerces libraries from the Apache XML Project were originally called XML4J and XML4C before IBM contributed them, and of course Netscape drafted the Mozilla license specifically to serve their own closed-source needs.

There is tons of GPL'ed code in existence, much of which may be applied in ways unimagined by the original author to use in a web application. And in no case does the source code need to be provided - either the modified source or (as the GPL intends, in contrast to most other licenses) the code to which it is linked, simply because the application has never been distributed.

So it is very likely that much of the copylefted code many of you reading this have already written has fallen forever into a black hole.

Thus I see a great disaster preparing to fall upon the Free Software community as a result of Microsoft's .NET initiative, all those folks building "net computers" and so on.

I wrote to Richard Stallman about this issue, suggesting The Free Software Foundation write some kind of "server GPL" that will take force whenever a program makes a communications connection with a program running on a computer outside of the organization. His response showed he'd been thinking about it but didn't have an immediate answer:

I am thinking of providing an option like this in GPL version 3. But it cannot be soon.

And sometimes you think you've got the binary downloaded for installation when you really don't. I discovered this the hard way when I wanted to download QuickTime 4 for my Windows PC over a slow 28.8 modem connection.

I saw that the download size was several megabytes so I waited until I got into the office where I could use DSL, installed it on the machine there, then copied the download file onto a zip disk and took it home - but then couldn't get it to install.

The installer you get from the website is a selection and download utility, and after picking the components that you want installed, it downloads them all in a single file, in a proprietary installation archive format. You cannot then reuse that download file - running the installer utility will only make a connection with apple's web server and won't open a previously downloaded install archive.

That meant that I had to go download the damn thing again, over a slow modem, even though I already had the data.

That means that once Apple no longer makes Quicktime 4 available on its website, it will no longer be possible to install. Maybe you're OK with this, you'll be using QuickTime 5 someday - but what if it doesn't run on your computer because you use a computer Apple no longer supports (Microsoft doesn't support NT in the latest Windows Media Player) or if the newer quicktime doesn't support a format that you need to use to open files that you already possess?

Lastly I'll tell you about some of the efforts software publishers will go to to copy protect their code. Explicit copy protection fell quickly out of favor early in the history of personal computers - users simply chose not to purchase it, so publishers had to ship their products without it. Even today, reasonably effective copy protection such as dongles are only used for expensive specialty programs.

But copy protection exists even if you think it's not there. Back in the mid-90's, a hardware manufacturer friend of mine asked me to think of a software product, any software product, with which he could plausibly associate a hardware card. We'd put as much money as necessary into development of the software product, but it would require the hardware card to run. The hardware card might not do anything but provide a serial number out of a PROM, or maybe it would have a cheap accellerator like a simple DSP. The key was that we'd be marketing the card, not the software - the software would come with the card, but the user would think they were buying the card, not the software.

The cards wouldn't cost more than $10 apiece to manufacture but would serve as perfect copy protection devices, and the user would neither suspect nor object.


Come On, posted 18 Dec 2000 at 12:25 UTC by moshez » (Master)

First of all about the hardware cards: people have been hacking around these kinds of protections too. If the hardware just provides a serial number, they'd hack the binary and remove that check. If it's something that can be emulated via the CPU, then the kernel can usually do it, etc.

Now, I think Web Applications will be *good* for free software: if what you're selling is the service, then releasing the software isn't such a big deal. The data is a different issue, but I'd assume any reasonable agreement I'd make with an ASP would contain a "the data will be sent to me on tapes in X format every week.", or even "I can download an archive of my data in .tar.gz".

Quicktime allows installs off your disk, posted 18 Dec 2000 at 13:03 UTC by itamar » (Master)

Somewhere on the Apple site is a version of Quicktime that installs off the harddisk, not the net. You just have to look for it.

As for "GPL for server apps" - how do you differentiate between design, code, and content? Would the improved user-interface I build for my web app be GPL'd? Do I have to release my design under the GPL every time I make a tiny change? Or at all?

Copyright-based licenses can't do what you want, posted 18 Dec 2000 at 17:43 UTC by jbuck » (Master)

Copyright gives the owner the right to restrict modification and distribution, not use. The user of a legally obtained copy of a copyrighted work can do whatever he or she wants with it -- unless some kind of binding contract is signed. Your new license would need to be a shrinkwrap license, taking away rights that users otherwise have. It would be difficult to make these restrictions narrow enough.

Some (Bruce Perens) have argued that we could use the "public performance" provisions of copyright: call running of a program on the web a public performance. To my mind, this is extremely dangerous. If running a program is a public performance, then isn't copying the look and feel of a program, copying its performance? Right now, as far as I know no one has argued for public performance copyright protection for software. If the principle gets established, then it seems that the free software movement is in trouble: performers have successfully sued other performers for imitating them for the purpose of doing commercials, giving the impression that it was the original performer. But bash does a very good job of imitating sh.

Be very careful not to kill the free software movement just to stamp out use of modified GPL programs on web servers!

Public performance might fit, posted 18 Dec 2000 at 19:26 UTC by Radagast » (Journeyer)

It might seem far-fetched to apply public performance rules to software. But software isn't just code, it's also graphics, text (in the UI), etc.

Of course, free software could also use clickwrap licenses. This would also solve some of the problems the UCITA has introduced, but there seems to be a resitance to clickwrap licenses in the free software community in general, on basis of principle. I'm not sure if that's well founded.

Since the GPL is basically a (very elegant) hack of the copyright and licensing system, an extended GPL which used a clickwrap license would be a similar hack of UCITA-enforced clickwrap licensing. If the only right taken away by a new GPL through clickwrap licensing would be the right to use modified software over the web without making source available (or similar hacks to circumvent the purpose of the GPL, such as CORBAifying or daemonizing software), I think that would be acceptable.

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