Free Open Source Software and the 2048 Problem.
Zach Gage 3/28/14
I have to start this off and say I am clearly a biased party. Asher and Greg are my friends, and I contributed some little thoughts to their game Threes.
I’m sure if you’re reading this you’re somewhat aware of the Threes / 2048 “issue”.
If you aren’t, you should probably read this article: http://asherv.com/threes/threemails/
As of this writing, there is a clone of 2048 topping the free charts on the app store, and there are a few articles about how the game was “amazingly, created in only a weekend!” floating around online. 2048 is a clone of a clone of Threes. That means right now, a clone of a clone of a clone of a game is the #1 free app in the iOS App Store.
But you say, this happens all the time! Clones abound! Why do I care?
Well, the problem is that 2048 is partially (substantially) the fault of the Free Open Source Software community.
It was created as open source. It’s MIT licensed. It blew up in popularity on hacker news. It’s open sourced nature allowed it to be easily plopped into a web-view and sold on the Apple and Android AppStores. I think it’s fair to say that had 2048 not reached meme-levels of popularity through the various versions that have been released (thanks to open source), it wouldn’t be the cultural force it is at this moment. This is an open-source success story if there ever was one.
I love the FOSS community. I cut my teeth with software like OpenFrameworks. I was a major contributer to the iOS implementation of OF, and I try to open source my code when I can. How could I blame FOSS for this?
The problem here is that FOSS did exactly what it’s good at for 2048. It spread the idea quickly, it allowed remixes, it allowed iterations, and it turned a small experiment into a cultural phenomenon. That is the glory of open source. But heres the downside:
- Most people don’t know that 2048 is based on Threes.
- Someone is making loads of money off of 2048, money that they don’t deserve
- All of this is hurting the two people who worked so hard to bring us this great thing in the first place. People who 2048 fans do not want to hurt, because they appreciate their work immensely (2048 would never exist without Threes).
The FOSS Community has grown complacent about the dangers of irresponsible distribution. When you give something away for free, you need to assume some responsibility for what people do with it. Just because you are a nice person doesn’t mean everyone is, and closing your eyes to that fact doesn’t absolve you of it’s consequences.
Look at this quote from Gabriele Cirulli, the creator of 2048 when asked about why he would not make an app of the game ( from http://m.en.softonic.com/features/interview-with-the-creator-of-2048 ):
“The first [reason why] is ethical: I will not make money off of something that I didn't invent - it would be unfair.”
But it is somehow ethical to allow other people to take your code wholesale and do this themselves?
No. It is not. Freedom != Anarchy. Developers need to take at least some reasonable precautions with the code they open-source, especially when their code is a passion project inspired by someone else’s unique artistic endeavor.
First, 2048 should never have been MIT licensed. If Cirulli didn’t feel he had the ethical standing to make money off of it, I don’t understand why he felt he had the ethical standing to tell others they could. It should have had a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. That license allows for all of the things that Cirulli says he wants, and it disallows the things that would be damaging to the original creators.
Second, 2048 should have explicitly credited the original game Threes. Although Cirulli didn’t know about it when he made the game, once he found out that he had been inspired by a clone, he should have added an addendum to reference Threes itself.
This is not a legal problem, this is a community problem. Nobody wants draconian oversight and armies of lawyers descending on remix culture. But that doesn’t mean we can’t wield the strength of our community to make sure that things are released responsibly and ethically. The FOSS community should have encouraged Cirulli to make these changes when they realized that he wasn’t behaving in a responsible manner.
Having proper licensing and credit on your FOSS creations has always been a tenant of the Open Source movement, thats why the GPL is structured the way it is, and why it was such a core license of the movement for so many years. Times have changed though, and with the advent of remix and commercial app culture, new licenses were needed. Fortunately, thanks to CreativeCommons, those licenses are easy to locate. They should be used.
I hate that this mess is attributable in part to the FOSS community, and for the sake of that not happening again, I hope we all do a better job being responsible with our open-source licensing and crediting in the future. Let's keep pushing innovation and responsibility, and make sure we don't turn into a well from which ripoff culture drinks.