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July 2009

Dual Licensing for Infinitest

In the latest release of Infinitest, we've moved to a dual license model. While the terms of the commercial license are nothing special, the terms of the free license are rather innovative: It's free for individuals. Companies that want their employees to use the tool can buy a commercial license from our newly formed company, Improving Works. While I think this license is actually quite straightforward, its novelty demands an explanation. What does "free for individuals" mean anyway? (Hint: it's not the same as "personal use")

First, let's talk about why we moved to a dual license in the first place.

I think some companies believe that by "open sourcing" their products, they can enlist an army of unpaid developers to help them meet their business goals. I'm sorry, but it doesn't work that way. On every open source project that I've ever contributed to, the core committers wound up doing 95% of the work, Infinitest included. Patches from the user community, while helpful and appreciated, tended to focus on bugs and compatibility issues, and were never significant enough to actually move the project forward. What Infinitest needs right now, more than anything, is to move forward. I think Continuous Testing is going to become an essential practice in the next few years, similar to what Continuous Integration or automated developer testing are today. In order to get there, however, the practice needs a mature Java tool.

We believe, like many other companies that use a dual license model, the most direct path to that maturity is via commercialization. While we gladly contribute our free time to Infinitest, most of the Infinitest committers are professional consultants. That means we have the flexibility to turn every dollar of revenue that we earn into development time for the product. It also means Infinitest need not be a full time gig for us. If it can pay for 500 additional hours of development a year, that's great. 5000 hours? Even better. With this approach, there's no magic number we need to reach to be sustainable, because we're sustainable from day one. And with the depth of Improving Enterprises' bench at our disposal, we can offer high quality support to our customers without worrying about where it's going to come from.

The conundrum, however, is that Infinitest also needs to be a freely available tool. If developers are not free to use the tool on their own projects, without restriction, it's unlikely that they'll be able to learn the practice of continuous testing well enough to apply it when working for a client or employer. The reality of the software industry is that very few companies will pay you to learn things that aren't (in their view) directly related to your day-to-day work. If you want to learn a new tool or technique, you often have to do it on your own time. We don't think you should have to pay to improve yourself.

So why not use the GPL, as is typical with dual licensed products? We considered a more traditional dual licensing model using the GPL, and if Infinitest were a library, that would be the clear choice. The problem is, you don't need to create a derivative work from Infinitest in order to use it. So the GPL doesn't create the kind of incentives necessary to make a dual license model feasible for a tool like Infinitest. The usage requirement we need in order to create those incentives also means that any open source license we adapted to our needs would surely not be accepted by the OSI, the FSF or any other group. Plus, open source license proliferation is generally not a good thing, so why make it worse?

After much research and debate, we wound up in the middle ground. The licenses we created balance all these concerns with a single restriction: You must be working for yourself. That is, free licenses are granted only to individuals, not corporations or other entities. Those individuals cannot use Infinitest to do work on behalf of another party (what's known in copyright law as a work made for hire). However, if you want to license, sell, or even assign the copyright of your work after creating it with Infinitest, that's fine. We want to encourage individual entrepreneurs and innovators to use Infinitest in any way that benefits them, because they contribute the most back to the user community. I think that's simple, fair, and offers a good balance between all the competing interests.

And if that's all too much to absorb, the layman's version goes like this: If you want to use Infinitest at your day job, your employer has to pay for it. Otherwise, it's free for you to use however you like.

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