The Affero GPL’s secret to success, by Timelex

Over the past few years, many software license templates have come and gone. One license seems to be growing in popularity recently: the Affero General Public License (AGPL). It’s worth taking a brief look at the reasons why this license, which is closing in on its tenth birthday, is seen so much more frequently nowadays.

Open source

Firstly, the AGPL is of course an open source license: anyone who obtains a copy can get access to the source code, in order to make their own additions and improvements. As such, it’s a good vehicle for building a community around a software project.

On that point, the AGPL is not unique. However, the AGPL was specifically created to fix a challenge known as the “application service provider loophole”. Many other open source licenses – such as notably the GPL – only require that source code is made available to the users who obtained a copy of the software. However, if you never receive a copy of the software to begin with, you are also never entitled to receive the source code.

Cloud computing

That’s quite a big issue when considering the importance of cloud computing and, more generally, services which are provided remotely without any local installation of software. In such an environment, anyone could download and install open source software, tweak it to meet their own needs, and never be required to offer access to the modified source code.

The AGPL addresses this, by requiring that modified versions of the software must prominently offer all users interacting with it remotely through a computer network an opportunity to receive the source code of that modified version, from a network server at no charge. In effect, the AGPL ensures that the users of remotely provided services can obtain the source code of the services they’re relying on.

Revenue

A key question then is how AGPL software can be monetised. Revenue can be obtained by:

  • charging for services (such as providing support, integration or customisation) rather than for the software itself, or
  • leveraging dual licensing options where the software is available both under a free AGPL license, and under a paid alternative license.

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