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Memo to camera makers: put Android in your device or face extinction

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by Frederic Filloux

Shot with my iPhone 7+, some light enhancements made in Snapseed

The smartphone is poised to take over digital photography. For the Canons, Nikons, Fujis or Leicas, a smart response should be to embrace the app ecosystem. Are they ready for it?

Returning from a trip to Australia, I write this on the flight back to Paris. I took advantage of an invitation to the Storyology Festival in Sydney and Melbourne to spend a few days in Tasmania. A few years back, I would have carried a bulky full-frame DSLR and a couple of my favorite lenses. This year, I settled for a Fuji X100 T, a nice compact with great performance. Guess what happened? I took most of my pics with my iPhone 7+.

I will sell all my pro gear. In my case, I better invest in the top of the line smartphone (i.e., trading for a new one every 12–18 months), than spending much more for a slight upgrade to a DSLR or mirrorless camera.

Why? Four reasons: Performance, interface, post-production capabilities and connectivity.

Performance

Granted, I miss the bokeh effect (background blur) of my DSLR. Sometimes. The iPhone 7+ addresses the issue with its dual camera system (with a “long” lens equivalent to a 56 mm) and clever digital processing that together conspire to add artificial depth-of-field effect in portrait mode. Below is a portrait of a Tasmanian friend without and with the depth-of-field effect:

I see comments coming: “You know nothing about photography. You are unable to see the difference between a true optical bokeh and a fake digital one. Plus, you completely disregard the poor performances of your iPhone in low light conditions”.

Here's my viewpoint:

— Expect $4,000 to $6,000 and 2 kilograms of gear (a full-frame DSLR and a quality large aperture lens) to have the magnificent depth-of-field effect, vs. $800 and 160 grams for my iPhone.

— True: In a smartphone, blur quality in a portrait is inferior. But we all know it will get better with each new software release. (And for each new version of the Image Signal Processor and each sensor generation.)

— As for the low light performance, true again, the laws of physics still apply. Just keep a number in mind : an iPhone sensor is roughly 57 times smaller than the one in a full frame camera, hence a much higher pixel density (if you want all the numbers, go to DxO Mark, the ultimate digital imaging reference). Since the size of the pixel is directly proportional to the number of photons it captures, a large sensor will work way better, generating less “noise” (parasites) in the picture taken in low light. But — again — software is already taking care of this. On a desktop, you can use noise removal software such as the one in DxO Optics Pro which works spectacularly and is easy to use. On a mobile device, many “denoiser” software included in inexpensive apps already do a more than passable job.

In conclusion, the performances gap is narrowing at a fast pace. Unless you covet a spread in a magazine or a photo exhibition, an iPhone or any high-end smartphone image, properly processed, works surprisingly well. (I recently met a National Geographic photographer whose story included images taken with his iPhone 6.) Which brings us to the second argument:

Post-processing

The major shift we are witnessing is the democratization of post-processing. Years ago, Photoshop ran the show; later, Lightroom became the desktop post-processing software for photo enthusiasts. Today, most image correction can be done directly on the device by using one of the dozens of apps available on iOS or Android. I tested many of them and settled for Snapseed. It allows all possible adjustments, including processing RAW images, in a very intuitive manner (a world of difference with Photoshop). Instead of dealing with multiple folders where I used to put different selections stages I now have a neat workflow: images captured with my iPhone, selection made in iOS Photos, processed in Snapseed and put on Instagram. All images find their way automatically on my MacBook courtesy iCloud (where they stay uncompressed) for later use. (I trust a similarly convenient workflow is available with Android phones and Windows or Mac desktops.)

The case for Android onboard high-end cameras

Instagram has become an essential promotional tool for professional photographers. All of those I talk to tell me there is now a direct correlation between the assignments they are able to get and their audience on Instagram. As for now, to post on Instagram, if they don’t shoot directly with their iPhone, they need to go through the cumbersome process of transferring their pictures from the device (sometimes via their computer), then processing them before posting.

Wouldn’t it be great, then, if it were possible to process a photo right in the camera and beam it in on Instagram once a wifi access point is available? Suddenly, a Sony A7 (my dream camera) with its unparalleled low light performance, would have access to the giant trove of photo apps available on Android. Even images taken in Raw format could be “developed” on board. (My dream would be to see Apple license a version of iOS on two or three trusted brands, but we all know Cupertino will freeze over before it happens.)

I’m absolutely certain that connecting high-end cameras to the Android app ecosystem would greatly enhance their market share and most likely ensure their survival.

The Future

Let’s be blunt: except for a pro and semi-pro segment, the digital market now belongs to the smartphone. The main reason: the level of R&D expenditure in the smartphone sector vastly outpaces the camera industry's investment power. Think about it: the Apple Imaging Group which designs the camera, the ISP and the different pieces of software, has over 1,000 engineers. And this says nothing of wireless engineering and general OS development groups.

A new generation of cameras can also change the game.
The DxO One camera which captures images in standalone mode, but can also be plugged into the lighting connector of the iPhone is an interesting avenue. Its low light performance is stunning (see DxO on Instagram) as its sensor is 8 times larger the iPhone’s while still offered in a super compact format. The DxO One goes far towards the merger between a high-performance camera and a smartphone ecosystem described above.

The DxO One camera: works autonomously or connected to the iPhone

More futuristic is the Light.co camera, which relies on… 16 sensors working in parallel to produce a composite image — a rather heavy one. Great concept in theory: this camera draws its components from the smartphone world (acrylic lenses, sensors, ISPs). But there is a great deal of skepticism regarding the huge computational load required to create the composite image, and related power management challenges. (I sent to Light.co a full page of questions about this intriguing product… they never got back to me). On the same principle (multiple lenses and on-the-fly complex digital processing), Lytro tried without any tangible success. Let's not abandon all hope: Moore’s Law is on the side of these two adventurous manufacturers.

[update]

My friend Brian Storm (founder and CEO of MediaStorm), drew my attention to this excellent report by LDV Capital (available here) about the future of the camera market:

Around 2021, “High Definition” Smartphones, equipped with six to 13 different cameras will have zoom & depth functionalities of a DSLR via its hardware and advances in computational photography. (…) By 2022, new smartphones and tablets will have at least four cameras and will drive growth of content for Augmented & Virtual Reality.

To conclude, the reason why I believe in merging the traditional digital imaging sector and the smartphone world is the importance of software. Whether it is to address physical constraints such as the lens size and sensor format, or post-processing, software will keep eating the world.

In the traditional camera world, progress is incremental, versus exponential on the smartphone side.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

=> Follow me on Instagram!


Memo to camera makers: put Android in your device or face extinction was originally published in Monday Note on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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bjtitus
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Sixteen is Letting Go Again

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A couple of times a week, I end up walking by the World Trade Center, either the new train station at the site, or one of the new malls that's sprung up flanking the memorial. It's a normal part of my day now, not a tentative and fraught moment that forces me to catch my breath. It's just part of my day.

And people are just suspicious of me in public places, like the airport or any place that's got a metal detector. Even if I still resent it, I've stopped wishing it would stop. It's just a normal part of my day, even when it angers me.

So, like ten years ago, I'm letting go. Trying not to project my feelings onto this anniversary, just quietly remembering that morning and how it felt. My son asked me a couple of months ago, "I heard there waa another World Trade Center before this one?" and I had to find a version of the story that I could share with him. In this telling, losing those towers was unimaginably sad and showed that there are incredibly hurtful people in the world, but there are still so many good people, and they can make wonderful things together.

It's an oversimplification, of course, but not a false one. I'm trying to let go and accept that that only stories we'll ever have of that day will be our flawed, incomplete perspectives. But at least we can push back against the myth-making by people who never saw the character of New York City firsthand on that day.

In Past Years

Each year I write about the attacks on this anniversary, as a means of recording for myself where I am compared to that day. I don't think I'm saying much that's profound or original, but it's a ritual that's helped me fit those events into my life.

Last year, Fifteen is the Past:

I don’t dismiss or deny that so much has gone so wrong in the response and the reaction that our culture has had since the attacks, but I will not forget or diminish the pure openheartedness I witnessed that day. And I will not let the cynicism or paranoia of others draw me in to join them.

What I’ve realized, simply, is that 9/11 is in the past now.

Two years ago, Fourteen is Remembering:

For the first time, I clearly felt like I had put the attacks firmly in the past. They have loosened their grip on me. I don't avoid going downtown, or take circuitous routes to avoid seeing where the towers once stood. I can even imagine deliberately visiting the area to see the new train station.

In 2014, Thirteen is Understanding:

There's no part of that day that one should ever have to explain to a child, but I realized for the first time this year that, when the time comes, I'll be ready. Enough time has passed that I could recite the facts, without simply dissolving into a puddle of my own unresolved questions. I look back at past years, at my own observances of this anniversary, and see how I veered from crushingly sad to fiercely angry to tentatively optimistic, and in each of those moments I was living in one part of what I felt. Maybe I'm ready to see this thing in a bigger picture, or at least from a perspective outside of just myself.

From 2013, Twelve is Trying:

I thought in 2001 that some beautiful things could come out of that worst of days, and sure enough, that optimism has often been rewarded. There are boundless examples of kindness and generosity in the worst of circumstances that justify the hope I had for people's basic decency back then, even if initially my hope was based only on faith and not fact.

But there is also fatigue. The inevitable fading of outrage and emotional devastation into an overworked rhetorical reference point leaves me exhausted. The decay of a brief, profound moment of unity and reflection into a cheap device to be used to prop up arguments about the ordinary, the everyday and the mundane makes me weary. I'm tired from the effort to protect the fragile memory of something horrific and hopeful that taught me about people at their very best and at their very, very worst.

In 2012, Eleven is What We Make:

These are the gifts our children, or all children, give us every day in a million different ways. But they're also the gifts we give ourselves when we make something meaningful and beautiful. The new World Trade Center buildings are beautiful, in a way that the old ones never were, and in a way that'll make our fretting over their exorbitant cost seem short-sighted in the decades to come. More importantly, they exist. We made them, together. We raised them in the past eleven years just as surely as we've raised our children, with squabbles and mistakes and false starts and slow, inexorable progress toward something beautiful.

In 2011 for the 10th anniversary, Ten is Love and Everything After:

I don't have any profound insights or political commentary to offer that others haven't already articulated first and better. All that I have is my experience of knowing what it mean to be in New York City then. And from that experience, the biggest lesson I have taken is that I have the obligation to be a kinder man, a more thoughtful man, and someone who lives with as much passion and sincerity as possible. Those are the lessons that I'll tell my son some day in the distant future, and they're the ones I want to remember now.

In 2010, Nine is New New York:

[T]his is, in many ways, a golden era in the entire history of New York City.

Over the four hundred years it's taken for this city to evolve into its current form, there's never been a better time to walk down the street. Crime is low, without us having sacrificed our personality or passion to get there. We've invested in making our sidewalks more walkable, our streets more accommodating of the bikes and buses and taxis that convey us around our town. There's never been a more vibrant scene in the arts, music or fashion here. And in less than half a decade, the public park where I got married went from a place where I often felt uncomfortable at noontime to one that I wanted to bring together my closest friends and family on the best day of my life. We still struggle with radical inequality, but more people interact with people from broadly different social classes and cultures every day in New York than any other place in America, and possibly than in any other city in the world.

And all of this happened, by choice, in the years since the attacks.

In 2009, Eight Is Starting Over:

[T]his year, I am much more at peace. It may be that, finally, we've been called on by our leadership to mark this day by being of service to our communities, our country, and our fellow humans. I've been trying of late to do exactly that. And I've had a bit of a realization about how my own life was changed by that day.

Speaking to my mother last week, I offhandedly mentioned how almost all of my friends and acquaintances, my entire career and my accomplishments, my ambitions and hopes have all been born since September 11, 2001. If you'll pardon the geeky reference, it's as if my life was rebooted that day and in the short period afterwards. While I have a handful of lifelong friends with whom I've stayed in touch, most of the people I'm closest to are those who were with me on the day of the attacks or shortly thereafter, and the goals I have for myself are those which I formed in the next days and weeks. i don't think it's coincidence that I was introduced to my wife while the wreckage at the site of the towers was still smoldering, or that I resolved to have my life's work amount to something meaningful while my beloved city was still papered with signs mourning the missing.

In 2008, Seven Is Angry:

Finally getting angry myself, I realize that nobody has more right to claim authority over the legacy of the attacks than the people of New York. And yet, I don't see survivors of the attacks downtown claiming the exclusive right to represent the noble ambition of Never Forgetting. I'm not saying that people never mention the attacks here in New York, but there's a genuine awareness that, if you use the attacks as justification for your position, the person you're addressing may well have lost more than you that day. As I write this, I know that parked out front is the car of a woman who works in my neighborhood. Her car has a simple but striking memorial on it, listing her mother's name, date of birth, and the date 9/11/2001.

In 2007, Six Is Letting Go:

On the afternoon of September 11th, 2001, and especially on September 12th, I wasn't only sad. I was also hopeful. I wanted to believe that we wouldn't just Never Forget that we would also Always Remember. People were already insisting that we'd put aside our differences and come together, and maybe the part that I'm most bittersweet and wistful about was that I really believed it. I'd turned 26 years old just a few days before the attacks, and I realize in retrospect that maybe that moment, as I eased from my mid-twenties to my late twenties, was the last time I'd be unabashedly optimistic about something, even amidst all the sorrow.

In 2006, After Five Years, Failure:

[O]ne of the strongest feelings I came away with on the day of the attacks was a feeling of some kind of hope. Being in New York that day really showed me the best that people can be. As much as it's become cliché now, there's simply no other way to describe a display that profound. It was truly a case of people showing their very best nature.

We seem to have let the hope of that day go, though.

In 2005, Four Years:

I saw people who hated New York City, or at least didn't care very much about it, trying to act as if they were extremely invested in recovering from the attacks, or opining about the causes or effects of the attacks. And to me, my memory of the attacks and, especially, the days afterward had nothing to do with the geopolitics of the situation. They were about a real human tragedy, and about the people who were there and affected, and about everything but placing blame and pointing fingers. It felt thoughtless for everyone to offer their response in a framework that didn't honor the people who were actually going through the event.

In 2004, Thinking Of You:

I don't know if it's distance, or just the passing of time, but I notice how muted the sorrow is. There's a passivity, a lack of passion to the observances. I knew it would come, in the same way that a friend told me quite presciently that day back in 2001 that "this is all going to be political debates someday" and, well, someday's already here.

In 2003, Two Years:

I spent a lot of time, too much time, resenting people who were visiting our city, and especially the site of the attacks, these past two years. I've been so protective, I didn't want them to come and get their picture taken like it was Cinderella's Castle or something. I'm trying really hard not to be so angry about that these days. I found that being angry kept me from doing the productive and important things that really mattered, and kept me from living a life that I know I'm lucky to have.

In 2002, I wrote On Being An American:

[I]n those first weeks, I thought a lot about what it is to be American. That a lot of people outside of New York City might not even recognize their own country if they came to visit. The America that was attacked a year ago was an America where people are as likely to have been born outside the borders of the U.S. as not. Where most of the residents speak another language in addition to English. Where the soundtrack is, yes, jazz and blues and rock and roll, but also hip hop and salsa and merengue. New York has always been where the first fine threads of new cultures work their way into the fabric of America, and the city the bore the brunt of those attacks last September reflected that ideal to its fullest.

In 2001, Thank You:

I am physically fine, as are all my family members and immediate friends. I've been watching the footage all morning, I can't believe I watched the World Trade Center collapse...

I've been sitting here this whole morning, choking back tears... this is just too much, too big. I can see the smoke and ash from the street here. I have friends of friends who work there, I was just there myself the day before yesterday. I can't process this all. I don't want to.

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Graphing the hidden thresholds of everyday life

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Unendurable line is a short film by Daihei Shibata which shows the movement of objects like springs, magnetically attracted objects, spinning tops, and stacked blocks accompanied by a real-time graph of the movement. A bit tough to explain…just watch it. Reminds me of Bret Victor’s live coding. (via colossal)

Tags: Bret Victor   Daihei Shibata   infoviz   video
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Ensemble Model

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I'm in talks with Netflix to produce an alternate-universe crime drama about the world where sliced bread was never re-legalized, but it's going slowly because they keep changing their phone numbers and the door lock codes at their headquarters.
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bjtitus
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popular
18 days ago
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2 public comments
jepler
20 days ago
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"snakes are wide instead of long"
Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm
emdeesee
19 days ago
#snakefacts
alt_text_bot
20 days ago
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I'm in talks with Netflix to produce an alternate-universe crime drama about the world where sliced bread was never re-legalized, but it's going slowly because they keep changing their phone numbers and the door lock codes at their headquarters.

Unpopular ideas about crime and punishment

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I’ve been compiling lists of “unpopular ideas,” things that seem weird or bad to most people (at least, to most educated urbanites in the United States, which is the demographic I know best).

Because my collection of unpopular ideas became so long, I’ve broken it into categories. Below, I focus specifically on ideas about crime and punishment. (Here are my two previous lists, on social norms and political/economic systems.) I’ll be posting similar lists on other topics and adding to each one over time as I find new examples.

Why am I making these lists? Even though I disagree with many of these ideas, I nevertheless think it’s valuable to practice engaging with ideas that seem weird or bad, for two reasons: First, because such ideas might occasionally be true, and it’s worth sifting through some duds to find a gem.

And second, because I think our imaginations tend to be too constrained by conventional “common sense,” and that many ideas we accept as true today were counterintuitive to past generations. Considering weird ideas helps de-anchor us from the status quo, and that’s valuable independently of whether those particular ideas are true or not.

Unpopular ideas about crime and punishment:

  1. Juries should be replaced by judges, especially in cases that are complex or subject to bias. (1)
  2. Non-retributive justice: Criminals are purely victims of genetics and circumstance. We should abandon punishment as a goal and instead focus only on preventing future harm. (1)
  3. We should provide prisoners, especially those serving a life sentence, with the means to commit suicide, and encourage them to do so. (1)
  4. We should send destructive drug addicts to towns away from society with free birth control, food, shelter and drugs. It would be less expensive to society than the crimes they commit and the cost of imprisoning them.
  5. Our current prison system mixes punishment with rehabilitation, and therefore does an ineffective job of both. We could get better results either by focusing solely on punishment, or solely on rehabilitation.
  6. Prison labor is just slavery, repackaged. (1, 2)
  7. Pre-punishment (like in Minority Report) would be effective and morally acceptable. (1, 2, 3)
  8. The death penalty is broken only in practice, not in principle. It wouldn’t be difficult to fix and should be kept in place for the worst criminals. Life imprisonment is extremely costly, dangerous to other inmates, and not much more humane than death anyway. (1)
  9. Prison abolitionism: We should get rid of prisons altogether, or reduce the size of the prison population to about five percent of its current size. (1, 2, 3)
  10. Police abolitionism: The benefits the police provide are not great enough to justify the harms and injustices they cause. (1)
  11. We should flog criminals instead of imprisoning them. Variant: we should offer convicts the choice between flogging and imprisonment. (1)
  12. Public shaming is often a more effective solution to crime than imprisonment, and should be more widely used. (1, 2)
  13. It should be legal to blackmail people over crimes they committed. This would provide an extra deterrant for criminals, and be cheap relative to policing. (1)


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samuel
13 days ago
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This is a fascinating list.
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bjtitus
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diannemharris
12 days ago
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neat! some good some bad, but good point about considering out of bound ideas to encourage new thoughts.

The License Zero Manifesto

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This piece also appears on Medium and licensezero.com.

Brokenness

Open Source is a shopping spree. Open Source is code with friends on the Web. Open Source is a list of magic licenses.

Everybody loves Open Source. Free, friends, and magic: what could possibly go wrong?

On the making side, as a maintainer in the last few years, you feel for yourself what’s wrong. Open Source won business over, and now business can’t get enough at the price. The bug reports, the feature requests, the diplomacy, the time it takes to do things right with current tools, have run down, burned out, and busted some of the best. The more you care about quality software, the more you care about community, the more generous bones in your body, the greater the risk that you’ll give out at some point, too. And perversely, the more people will ask, expect, and even demand more from you.

That’s wrong. Something’s broken.

Tension

We code with friends on the Web for fun, to hone our craft, to scratch our itches, to chase beautiful ideas. But more and more of our growing community isn’t playing for joy. They’re playing to win. They’re playing other games.

Open Source has always welcomed those uses, too. But when the take is constant, and the give only occasional, what once was joyous can feel like thankless work. There are more and more of you handing out code every day, but you’re increasingly outnumbered all the same, and the community adopts more and more the character of its majority.

We talk about the consequences as “sustainability” problems. Sustainability is abstract; casualties aren’t. If you can’t help caring about elegance in software, if you won’t give up coding in the open, if you can’t count on winning the Open Source dream-job lottery, or thriving in corporate conditions if you do, you need support to avoid harm to yourself and the integrity of your craft. You need recognition, help, and material aid from those who rely on your work and take your time. There’s no good reason independent craft and life-sustaining software success shouldn’t go hand-in-hand.

Emptyhandedness

Unfortunately, neither Open Source generally, nor Free Software specifically, helps here. Open Source licenses override legal defaults that make using and sharing software difficult and risky. They’re handy, reliable, specialized tools for disarming the heavy weapons that copyright and other laws hand out to individual developers, want them or not. But neither Open Source licenses nor Open Source tooling tell you how or why to make time to write software in the first place. They don’t tell you how to stay sane, or pay rent, so that you can write still more, or maintain what you’ve already made. Even if there’s clear need. So Open Source licenses make amazing tools of selfless, total generosity, if you come from a situation free of worldly concern, and that’s giving you can afford. If you feel like every day is someone else’s birthday, and being generous is becoming expensive, that’s Open Source at scale. Not a bug.

Try to make money, or just finance time to contribute where you see a need, and effectively free-of-charge under Open Source terms doesn’t leave you much leverage. The most valuable thing you have to offer, your software, is pegged down at $0. So you join the Mendicant Order of Maintainerati. Maybe mull a few Open Source business models, like proprietary add-ons, support, hosted services, and training. But even fewer users donate than contribute back, and all the business models are second-rate. Open Source severs the link between good software and good software business, and the two veer off naturally in different directions. At worst, Open Source business models incentivize worse software. Since you can’t charge more for better software, and you need to charge for something, you take time you’d rather spend bettering software, and make the best of an inherently flawed business plan, instead.

Leverage

License Zero is a new set of tools at your disposal. And it’s a shot across the bow of software entitlement, free-as-in-worthless, and maintainer disposability. License Zero evolves the most promising Open Source business model, the one most protective of good software craft: dual licensing, or offering software under one set of public terms, with an option to purchase other terms if you need them.

It starts with the License Zero Public License, a public license, the kind of thing you see in LICENSE files. License Zero is based on the two-clause BSD License, a classic permissive Open Source license, with two key additions:

  1. Commercial use is limited to 90 days, as long as commercial users can readily acquire other licenses from a named source. If other licenses aren’t available for 90 days, this new language drops away, leaving exactly the same terms as those of the standard, Open Source two-clause BSD License.

  2. The copyright notice includes some additional information on the developer, and a cryptographic signing key.

The effect is something like:

def public_license (paid_available, commercial, contributing):
  if paid_available:
    if commercial:
      if contributing:
        return 'contribution-enabling, BSD-like license'
      else:
        return '90-day free trial, then you have to buy a license'
    else:
      return 'noncommercial, BSD-like license'
  else
    return 'standard, Open Source, two-clause BSD'

Companies doing Open Source dual licensing have traditionally picked the prickliest Open Source public license they think they can get away with. The pricklier the public license, the better the incentive for those with means to pay for a private license, rather than ponder the public one. The community around the software, if any, gets to do the pondering. On what triggers copyleft. On how to comply. On license compatibility. On copyright assignment documents.

Commercial outfits with money to spend on licenses, and on lawyers, are in the best position to grapple and cope with those issues. So the burden of confusion falls exactly where it makes least sense. We see this with GPLs, and AGPLs. We see it with lack of clear licensing, as with SQLite.

License Zero does a better job of driving demand for paid licenses. If you use the software for gain and glory past 90 days, a nice long free trial, you need to buy a license. There are no complex license conditions to squint at. On the other side, if you’re not using commercially, License Zero does a better job of reducing license-related hassle. The license is essentially two-clause BSD for non-commercial users and their peers.

Departure

According to The Open Source Definition, discriminating against commerce and non-contributors is not “Open Source”. The Definition also prohibits discrimination against “fields of endeavor”, like commerce, and persons and groups, like non-contributors. That means License Zero is no longer an Open Source license, even if it remains remarkably generous, a public gift to charitable organizations, students, teachers, academics, and hobbyists everywhere.

“Not Open Source” doesn’t mean License Zero software can’t be developed in the open. On the contrary, the public license makes clear that anyone can distribute for any purpose. You can put your source code on GitHub. You can publish build artifacts to many package repositories, like npm. Sure, rascals can find your software online, and skip buying the license they need. But the conscientious, the risk-averse, the accountable, and the eminently lawsuit-worthy will tend to buy licenses, especially if that’s easy to do. DRM, access control, and the like aren’t worth it, when you’d rather make your software easy to obtain, and as popular as possible. If you really want, you can sue unlicensed commercial users, or more likely threaten to sue and settle. You have the leverage.

But how easy can buying a private license be? One of the great benefits of taking cost out of the picture with an Open Source license is that nobody hassles with paying or charging it. Neither do you have to negotiate license terms: Open Source license terms are take-it-or-leave it, and so generous that pretty much everybody takes. Other than for distribution, you don’t have to deal with any external systems at all.

Just as Internet and software enabled distribution took payment for shipped copies of Open Source software, common in its earliest days, out of the picture, the Internet and software can alleviate the pain of communicating licenses and payment. licensezero.com is a techno-legal vending machine for the kinds of private licenses the License Zero Public License anticipates, the other half of the dual licensing play. Developers can create accounts by linking with Stripe, generate LICENSE files and package metadata, and set pricing for four tiers of paid, commercial licenses: solo use, a team up to 10, a company up to 100, or an enterprise, unlimited. Private license sales happen directly on developer Stripe accounts, via Connect. The vending machine initiates Stripe charges directly on your Stripe account, taking a commission in passing.

Agency

licensezero.com acts as developers’ licensing agent, using the same cryptographic key shown in LICENSE to sign binding private licenses on developers’ behalf. The private licenses derive from The Apache License, Version 2.0, an enterprise-friendly permissive license. Commercial users can use a command-line tool to generate quotes for all License Zero dependencies in their projects, buy all the licenses they’re missing with a credit card on one checkout page, and import a bundle of their licenses, so they’re omitted from quotes going forward. License Zero can’t beat Open Source’s utter lack of payment, terms, and communication in low friction. But using software, it can come very close. Close to zero.

In case the terms themselves produce unwanted friction, licensezero.com allows developers to borrow the agent’s cryptographic key to sign waivers, essentially freebie commercial-use licenses. Waivers are a quick way to reassure noncommercial users with questions about the public license that they can use freely. They can also be used to reward contributors, manually or perhaps through a bot that responds on landed pull requests. The command-line tool can import and process waivers, too.

When generous waivers for specific users won’t do it, adopting License Zero licensing needn’t be a permanent choice. You can relicense your work onto more generous terms, like Open Source terms, at any time. Perhaps when you find a different support arrangement to keep you fed. Perhaps when you cut a deal to relicense on Open Source terms for a fee. Perhaps when work on a discreet problem is just done, and you very generously intend to ensure that it stays that way. You have always had these kinds of choices. License Zero makes that clear again, even if you never use it.

The site and tooling are launching now for npm packages, but the legal parts of the toolkit, and much of the agent code, work generically. It won’t take too much to extend the convenience to other language ecosystems with discreet package concepts and welcoming repositories.

People

You may wonder why all this matters to me, about who you’re dealing with, and what I’m after. licensezero.com will be, as long as I can manage it, a very simple machine, an artless device that pulls no punches. But in your position, I’d wonder: Who’s making the choices around here?

I’m kemitchell. Free and Open Source Software took me out of a tiny town in the Piney Woods of Texas. Linux and the Web grabbed me early, and haven’t let go since. I vividly remember pulling together dollars, waiting for weekends with my father, in town, where I could find old editions of O’Reilly books used. What I read in those books helped get me to Austin.

I wasn’t in Austin long before I started working in software. And I kept working. And learning. And working. And studying. And working still more. And eventually, more or less, burning out. I chased a life goal to Moscow for a year to shake it, had a great time, and watched the US economy tank on Russian state TV. My clientele was toast, but in a way, I was already done. I took a look around at the incredible hackers I was meeting in Russia, met a few Americans doing good work as attorneys abroad, and figured I could run the middle. Get a legal education, get a ticket back to Russia, and help build bridges between American and Russian tech.

From there to law school, still slinging software. And to Silicon Valley, to work at a firm. And then on my own, to Oakland, to take control of my practice, and my tools. Free again at last, I came back to the software community, and met some more incredible hackers, especially in Oakland, especially around Node.js. Russia had gone to war, the Russian-American bridges burnt down, and sanctions went up in their place. But I found myself surrounded by great people, friends and sometimes even clients, on the leading edge of Open Source and other communities rowing against the current of intellectual property law. I couldn’t help it. I started writing in the open. I started contributing where I could help.

I see my friends struggle to maintain their craft. I see them burn out. I see them go it alone, without guidance, without leverage, without structural support. As we slurp jjamppong in Temescal, or sip coffee South of Market, or wolf down trash bag pizza at Sudo Room, we can’t help talking about software and where it’s going. How the community is changing. About friends who’ve had to skip town to stay true. About how long we’ll last before we split, compromise, or fold.

Not while I still type. I’m here to help.

Change

License Zero is an experiment. A cultural experiment. A moral experiment. What should developers charge for their work? Coffee money? Lunch money? Conference ticket money? What should the agent charge, as commission? A flat fee? Real-estate rate? A good restaurant tip? I don’t know. With luck, we’ll find out.

But whatever the details, the overarching, immediate, community purpose of License Zero is to register a few critical points:

First, that community tools are for hacking. That includes licenses. When community runs aground on a systemic problem, we should roll up our sleeves, and debug skeptically. We should assess what we value, and implement from there. Preferably in software.

Second, that not everyone wants to succeed at open software development on the same terms, or should. Companies, especially large ones, foundations, and governments, have long made talent available in the form of paid Open Source time. But there ought to be room for small and independent players, as well.

Third, that all good software built openly, and especially Open Source, has value, particularly when there’s no price tag users can see. Making costs invisible doesn’t make projects free. Community and industry alike should celebrate those who bear, and hide, significant costs for others, especially those willing to stand by while others reap commercial rewards gratis. Those playing to win should recognize that all of you have a choice—in fact, many choices—about how to work and share your craft.

Now you have one more.

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bjtitus
8 days ago
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Denver, CO
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