We’re used to the relationship between the commercial software companies from whom we’ve bought whichever of the programs we use on our computers, and ourselves as end users. We pay them money, and they give us a licence to use the software. We then go away and do our work on it, create our Microsoft Word documents or whatever, and those are our work, to do whatever we want with.
There are plenty of arguments against this arrangement from the world of free software, indeed many of us choose to heed them and run open source alternatives to the paid-for packages or operating systems. But for the majority of individuals and organisations the commercial model is how they consume software. Pay for the product, use it for whatever you want.
What might happen were that commercial model to change? For instance, if the output of your commercial software retained some ownership on the part of the developer, so for example maybe a word processor company could legally prevent you opening a document in anything but their word processor or viewer. It sounds rather unreasonable, and maybe even far-fetched, but there is an interesting case in California’s Ninth Circuit court that could make that a possibility.
The software in question is a specialist CAD package for structural steelwork, and concerns a company that had outsourced its CAD work to China. The claim being made is that the ownership lies in “expressive content that is not in the actual design of the component, such as the font or the colors used, the shape of a comment box, or the placement of certain components around the design which appear in the design file, but which are not the design itself“.
Almost all creative software comes pre-loaded with this form of content, whether it is a font, a component in a CAD library, a predefined rounded box for creating a flow chart, or a sound sample. While the court case in question is a minor one in a niche corner of one industry, its potential for a precedent means we should all keep an eye on it. The possibility of this pre-loaded content being used to exert ownership over output files is an extremely worrying one, and while many software companies explicitly grant a licence to use them it’s likely that there would be developers who would be unable to resist the chance to make more cash through this means.
Our community has recently had a nasty surprise on the software licensing front, with EAGLE moving to a subscription model. Let’s hope this doesn’t turn into another one. Meanwhile there’s our series on creating a PCB in KiCAD, should you wish to make the jump to open source.
Via Hacker News.
CAD model of a power station: VGB PowerTech [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.