Why license a non-entity?
by Chris Seidel

  March 2000    Saturday

      People get aggravated when they sense their freedom is in jeopardy, or is perhaps non-existent. I get aggravated by software licenses. I don't like them. I don't like being told what I can or can't do with a piece of software I've paid for, or that my government has paid for. I don't like looking over End User License Agreements written in legalese that is difficult to understand, and that I don't feel qualified to agree to without a law degree. I do like paying for software, and believe that if software were reasonably priced there would be no need for such intimidating agreements.

      Do lawyers that write these software agreements think they're making genuinely positive contributions to the world? Are they acting to increase the quaility of life for the average consumer?

      I bring this up because of a recent experience I had with M. Brown, Staff Counsel at TIGR, a non-profit research institution in Maryland. I wanted to use a piece of software that was developed under a federal grant from the National Cancer Institute (R01 CA77049-01). It was a simple program for looking at gene expression data called ArrayViewer. I had seen a talk by the person to whom the grant was given, in which they had described the program and how it would be freely available.

      I should point out that there is a long history of people in non-profit settings, such as academic research, who write programs which are then released free of charge. In many cases the source code to these programs is also released, which allows other interested parties to improve upon or make new things with the orginal program. When it's open in this way, everyone can benefit. The emergence of the internet is a prime example of this model in action. Someone wrote a web server, and someone wrote a web browser, both free, and the world changed.

      The TIGR website has a software section containing many programs. The particular program I was looking for was inaccessible but led to a downloadable software license that needed to be filled out and faxed back to TIGR before access to the program would be granted. This seemed slightly unprecedented, and I wondered why access to such a program would be restricted like this. However after figuring all this out I filled out the agreement and faxed it in.

      On the following Monday I received an email from M. Brown stating that my request could not be completed until I found a representative from my institution, i.e. a faculty member, to fill out and fax in the form. I was shocked. I had already spent half an evening dealing with an unexpected level of bureaucracy trying to access this program. My heart sank, and I felt all the positive feelings about getting things done and making scientific progress and exploring possibilities flow out of me, and be replaced by the lead weights of snitty bureacrats who want to limit what people can do with things for no reason that I seem to be able to comprehend. It didn't make sense to me.

      Scientists need tools. The government gives out grants so people can do research and share their results and the tools they develop. I could write this damm program myself but it would take several weeks or months doing it in my free time. The purpose of funding the grant request is to enable researchers, so everyone doesn't have to re-invent the wheel, and scientists can be free to go out and build upon what others have done and invent better wheels, or use the wheel for something else that no one had imagined a wheel could be used for. Well that's not how it was going to work today, not if M. Brown, Staff Counsel at TIGR had anything to say about it.

      I wrote back expressing my dismay that a graduate student at a public university didn't have the autonomy to request use of a program written and developed with federal research money, and that the unprecedented nature of such bureacratic entanglements might put people off from using the software. I mentioned that I would fulfill his request, and left it at that. I wasn't looking forward to it. I would have to find my professor, which could take several days, give her the paperwork and explain the situation to her, find a fax machine and fax everything in. Fax machines are usually in locked offices only accessible during certain hours. More coordination of schedules. And then what? Would they tell her where to get the software and then she would tell me? I didn't understand what the big deal was. It's only a software program! Why all this crap?      

-----Original Message-----
From: seidel@socrates.berkeley.edu [mailto:seidel@socrates.berkeley.edu]
Sent: Monday, March 20, 2000 11:42 AM
To: Michael J. Brown
Subject: Re: Software License Request

Hello Michael,

I find it absolutely incredible that an individual graduate student lacks
the autonomy to gain a license to a piece of software that was apparently
written and developed with public grant money. I find this layer
of bureaucracy that you are requiring people to go through to gain access
to a simple piece of software virtually unprecedented in terms of access
to other types of software written under public funds. Unfortunately I
feel it will deter many people from using it.

However I'll find a faculty member to satisfy your request.


Chris Seidel

Dept of Molecular and Cell Biology    "Information wants to be free"
UC Berkeley  * Kane Lab 614 Barker Hall

      M. Brown then wrote me back a rather "put me in my place" response that sounded as if it could only be written by a laywer.

From: "Michael J. Brown" <mbrown@tigr.org>
To: <seidel@socrates.berkeley.edu>
Subject: RE: Software License Request
Date: Mon, 20 Mar 2000 15:15:18 -0800
X-Priority: 3 (Normal)
Importance: Normal
Status: RO
X-Status: A
X-UID: 43

Mr. Seidel,

Contrary to your opinion and belief, we have not had any complaints from
other students.  As a student, you are not authorized, nor are you an
institutional official that can be legally bound by the terms and conditions
of the Software License Agreement.

As a point of clarification, many of the software programs developed at TIGR
were not developed under public grant money.  These software programs
represent proprietary and confidential information for TIGR and must be
treated as such.  Therefore, we require authorized individuals who can
legally bind a university to sign the Software License Agreement before we
will provide access.

Michael J. Brown


What a mess.

My opinion and belief was that such impediments and entanglements would result in fewer people using the software. I think this is indisputable. I reposnded to M Brown reminding him that this particular piece of software was written under a grant from the NCI, which is a public funding agency. This means that your tax dollars and my tax dollars paid for this with the idea of improving the world through science.

He thinks because someone doesn't complain that means there are no complaints and that no one is being deterred? Even a lwayer knows better than that. Oh and by the way, I am a non-entity, and cannot have access without being leashed to something like my institution which can properly take the fall in case I think of something extraordinarily useful to do with their program.

After a week I finally was able to gain access to the software. M Brown stopped coresponding with me directly. The software came with no documentation, and no source code. Which is a real pity because the program was very poor and needed improvements. It was so bad I found it unusable. It could easily have been improved upon, but was not released for public effort the way science tools are often released. I can assure you, the person who wrote the software had no intention for it to be useless. It's too bad the lawyers and beauracracy hold back the pace of science and humanity in places where it is not necessary.