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Interviews with App Developers: Open Source, Community, and Contradictions – Part III

Posted by Samantha Cassar at Mar 24, 2015 01:00 PM |
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The following is a third post within a series reporting on interviews conducted with 10 of Bangalore's mobile app developers and other industry stakeholders. Through this research, CIS attempts to understand how the developers interviewed engage with the law within their practice, particularly with respect to IP. Here we examine different attitudes and perspectives towards themes related to open software, as well as contract agreements.

While interviewing 10 of Bangalore's mobile app developers, the conversations that proceeded the immediate responses to our questions posed proved to be the most insightful. Previously, we examined responses surrounding different views on intellectual property rights (IPR) and potential factors influencing these individuals' attitudes and practices within their work. Within these preceding blog posts reporting on our interviews, a prevalent device we have made reference to is the dichotomy across positions that app developers take at polar ends of various spectrums. Here are some examples of the ways we have observed individuals to have opposing standpoints:

Contrary to some pro-IPR stances, several of our app developers strongly opposed notions of strict IPR regimes (patents, especially) and advocated on behalf of the open source community. And yet, others expressed their appreciation for open source software (OSS), all the while pursuing their own IP protection—a contradiction?

But is it really so cut and dry? Must an individual represent one side or the other? And if he or she does straddle the line that divides these opposing stances, is it by choice? Or necessity?

And what other dichotomies exist for the mobile app developer?

Open values and open source

Those interviewed who spoke highly of open source software often did so in referring to personal values of openness and the ability to share and use others' code freely within their work. One developer within a nonprofit enterprise explained that he would not want to restrict the future development and utilization of their idea, and would only consider licensing his source code under open source licensing, and not copyright.

Another common claim across developers is their involvement within the developer community, and contributions to open source libraries—and not only as a hobby. Large software development social enterprise, Mahiti, along with other interviewees representing social or nonprofit enterprises exhibited a particular interest in the use of and contributions to open source libraries.

Sreekanth S. Rameshaiah, cofounder and CEO of Mahiti explains that they “require all software to be GNU licensed, unless decided otherwise by the clients.” GNU General Public License (GPL) is considered a free software license—one that allows the licensed works to be freely accessible to all and to be used, copied, and altered as desired—as well as copyleft—in requiring all users of any component of the previous work to license their succeeding work under the same license as well. Some clients for Mahiti, of course, wouldn't find such conditions desirable, if they are ever to profit off or retain full ownership over their products and services.

Open source for future protection

One designer from a services SME enlightened us of a different reason for doing so: to guarantee their ability to use their work again. “Since we use a bunch of templates and things like that, those we license using a non-exclusive license, because we reuse those elements on different bits of code in different projects,” he explains, “so there are bits of it which is used over multiple projects and there are stuff that is built exclusively for the client.”

Here we are given some insight, that perhaps developers do not necessarily license for community values primarily, but for the ability to use their own work across clients. That being said, we begin to wonder what the possibility that open source code may serve as a loophole for work-for-hire contracts, which require the developer to assign all written intellectual property to whoever is commissioning the project. If the code happened to “already be available by open source,” a developer may still be honouring any restrictive agreements with clients, and ensuring their ability to use their code in this future again.

Such a strategy complies with the advice of Jayant Tewari of Out Sourced CFO & Business Advisory Services. Some advice Tewari has for startups is to first and foremost protect themselves by making wiser choices related to code in order to prevent being litigated against by others—such as using an open source equivalent to a piece of code that one does not have the rights to, or instead putting the extra time in to develop it from scratch.

Conflicting perspectives: hypocrisy or realism?

Of those who expressed an interest in the open source movement, not all had said that their products were to be open licensed as well. One developer explicitly stated: “I like the idea of open source, and building upon others' work...but our app is not open source, it's proprietary.” It may be a given, then, that all or most developers within our interview sample rely on open source code within their practice, but not all may contribute their resulting product's source code back.

Vivek Durai, from Humble Paper says that despite the fact that “open source has really taken route... on the smaller levels, people will come to a point when philosophies begin to change the moment you start seeing commercial.”

In our first blog post, we established the tendency for startup app developers to move away from the services model towards a product-oriented business model. If app developers most often contribute back to open source libraries when they do not have any mobile app products of their own to protect, I begin to wonder if we would see any change to the levels of content generation across open source libraries if, hypothetically speaking, all services app development enterprises began to solely develop their own products.

Which brings us to an additional mobile app ecosystem dichotomy:

To license mobile app code as proprietary    VS to license mobile app code as open source

As individuals move away from the services model to focus their energy and investments on their own products, I begin to wonder if there is a tendency for them to also move away from the open source model as well...

Although perhaps irrelevant, we also consider the question concerning the reasons mobile app developers moving away from the services model to begin with. In the first part of this series, we heard from industry consultants of the little financial incentive the services sector has to offer, but can that be all there is to it?

Join us in our next post as we look closer at the mobile app ecosystem's business model trends, as well as its startup culture with regards to contracts and copyright.


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Samantha Cassar

Samantha is from the University of Toronto, and has been undertaking preliminary policy research for the Centre for Internet & Society looking at the legal aspects of India's mobile app ecosystem to better enable developers within it. Her research has involved interviews with mobile app developers and other community members, as well as a nation-wide industry survey on legal practices within mobile app development.