Updating Genode's license to AGPLv3 + open-source linking clause

Norman Feske norman.feske at ...1...
Sat Dec 17 16:37:24 CET 2016

Hello Ben,

> Am I correct that software that doesn't link directly to any AGPLv3 code
> (e.g. code that just uses libc) is okay to have proprietary licenses?

this is not correct because the proprietary code would still linked to
Genode in addition to the libc.

> That seems to be the logical interpretation, and probably the most
> beneficial, as it wouldn't discourage companies from porting their
> software to Genode.

This statement is interesting because it raises the question of the
motives and goals behind Genode. What does "most beneficial" mean?
Beneficial to whom? Let me try to look at this question from different

1. The Free Software user

For an end user who consciously uses a Free Software ecosystem,
proprietary applications are not interesting because they restrict the
freedom of the user. Frankly speaking, I am an example of such a user. I
have not touched proprietary applications on my computer since several
years. But I vividly remember the inconvenience of using opaque
installers, the lack of security updates, the inability to fix bugs, or
the suspicion about backdoors and vulnerabilities introduced by such
applications. The argument that an operating system would be useless
without proprietary applications was probably valid 15 years ago. Today,
the Free Software world is so strong and diverse that this argument does
not hold anymore.

2. The consumer

Many end users are neither aware nor interested in technical details.
They just want to get work done, browse the web, play games, or watch
movies. From the operating-system's perspective, I also see
professionals (like photographers, writers, business users) in this
category. A typical consumer uses the OS that comes pre-installed on the
device, and accepts the inherent dependency from commercial vendors. The
user does not care too much about the uppercase Freedom of software. I
am sometimes such a user. E.g., when using my portable audio player, I
just want to listen to music.

3. The proprietary application vendor

For a proprietary application vendor, the consumer (2) is a business
case. The application vendor wants to create and distribute applications
with as little costs as possible and sell them to the consumer at the
highest price possible. The latter would not be easily possible if the
application vendor published its own "intellectual property" to everyone
for free. Hence, the applications tend to stay proprietary to uphold the
business case. The application vendor has to consider expenses like
paid-for development tools, licenses of commercial libraries, or
app-store fees as cost factors. It is clear that proprietary application
vendors welcome liberally licensed open-source libraries or platforms
for hosting and distributing proprietary software at no costs.

4. The proprietary platform vendor

A vendor may use Genode as the basis of a proprietary platform, for
example an appliance designated for a specific market. But such a
platform may in principle also be targeted at the consumer mass market.
In order to use Genode as the basis of a proprietary platform, the
platform vendor obtains a commercial license of Genode. In this case,
the choice of Genode's regular open-source license is not a concern for
such a platform vendor.

5. The Free Software developer

The motives of Free-Software developers are diverse. But regardless of
the motives, they generally improve the lives of Free-Software users. If
the software addresses consumer needs, Free-Software developers often
find themselves as competing with proprietary applications.

Of course, the categories are not clear-cut. But they help to address
two questions: (1) Who would benefit from the ability to host
proprietary applications on top of the open-source Genode system, and
(2) whom do we want to cater with the open-source license of Genode?

Regarding question (1), only the proprietary application vendor would
immediately benefit, but only under the condition that Genode is a
platform used by their target audience (consumers). This is of course
not the case. Hence, for an application vendor, there is no business
case for porting their applications to Genode at all. Instead,
application vendors focus on popular end-user platforms like iOS,
Android, Windows.

Regarding question (2), with Genode's open-source license, we want to
cater Free-Software users and Free-Software developers in the first
place. Acknowledging that the open-source Genode system is not a
consumer platform as is, there is no benefit in catering the interests
of proprietary application vendors with Genode's open-source license.

Please don't get me wrong. I don't dismiss consumers. I see two
principle ways of how Genode can reach popularity among consumers, by
becoming a consumer platform, or by consumers gravitating towards Free
Software. Regarding the former, I am convinced that Genode can become a
popular consumer platform only with strong commercial incentives of a
platform vendor. Should a platform vendor develop such an interest, it
would seek a commercial license. The funding obtained from the
commercial licensing would ultimately help Genode and thereby the
Free-Software community. The second direction is that consumers would
buy products that are solely based on Free Software. Personally, as a
Free-Software user, I find this prospect quite exciting.

Given this line of thinking, I hope that you agree that the ability to
host proprietary applications on top of the open-source Genode system
would not bring any tangible value. But maybe I have overlooked
something? Please don't hesitate to share your thoughts.


Dr.-Ing. Norman Feske
Genode Labs

http://www.genode-labs.com · http://genode.org

Genode Labs GmbH · Amtsgericht Dresden · HRB 28424 · Sitz Dresden
Geschäftsführer: Dr.-Ing. Norman Feske, Christian Helmuth

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