A couple of weeks ago, I pointed out how a decision in Norway involving cash registers emphasised one of the advantages of open source – its natural auditability. Here's another interesting situation that points out a further reason for choosing openness.
It involves the new version of the Sim City game from Electronic Arts (EA). Here's how Ars Technica reports on the problem:
the end-user license agreement you have to sign to get access to the new Sim City beta mentions that "it is your responsibility to report all known bugs, abuse of ‘bugs’, ‘undocumented features’ or other defects and problems related to the Game and Beta Software to EA as soon as they are found ('Bugs')." That's not so bad, but it gets a little bit more concerning when the EULA lays out the penalties for failing to report a bug you come across.
"If you know about a Bug or have heard about a Bug and fail to report the Bug to EA, we reserve the right to treat you no differently from someone who abuses the Bug. You acknowledge that EA reserve the right to lock anyone caught abusing a Bug out of all EA products."
That circuitous language obscures a simple fact: just coming across a bug in the Sim City beta and not telling anyone about it is enough to ban you from all EA games.
So, first of all, EA insists that users of the beta have a "responsibility" to report all known bugs. Then, if users find a bug and have the temerity not to report it to EA (within what time period – instantly?), then EA reserves the right to ban you from all EA games.
This brings out quite nicely the master-slave relationship that proprietary software imposes on its users. The owner of the software can use the licence agreement to impose all kinds of ridiculous and insulting terms, as here. It's true the user has the option of refusing, but if you are trying to run the software, that's a little hard.
Contrast this with free software. There, the licence is purely about keeping it free – in other words, restricting the restrictions you might place upon it when passing it on. It demands nothing in terms of how you use the software. In particular, it says nothing about what to do if you find bugs.
However, the open nature of free software means that people are actively encouraged to report any bugs they find – but not because they will be punished if they don't, but simply because it's much easier to find them, and generally helpful to report them.
Following the understandable outcry that has greeted EA's insane demands, the company now seems to have backed down somewhat, and gave the following statement to Forbes:
The clause in the EA Beta Agreement for the SimCity beta was intended to prohibit players from using known exploits to their advantage. However, the language as included is too broad. EA has never taken away access to a player's games for failing to report a bug. We are now updating the Beta Agreement to remove this point.
No company basing its product on open source will ever need to make this kind of climbdown, because they can't threaten users in the first place.
Also worth considering is the knock-on effect of this episode. Even with the new policy in place, will EA users be rushing to reports bugs they come across, or will they be wondering whether at some point this will be held against them in some mysterious way? Given the arbitrary nature of closed-source licensing agreements, and the fact that they can be changed unilaterally at any time, there's no way to know whether a company will suddenly come out with further ridiculous hoops that users are forced to jump through, or further unreasonable punishments for failing to do so.
With open source, users can be sure that will never happen, because the licence they are granted in order to use free software means can't be changed in this sudden way. Instead, it's the product of years of careful consideration and community discussion. That's sometimes seen as something of a disadvantage, since it takes so long to tweak open source licences. The roller-coaster ride of EA users during the last few days shows why this longer time-scale is actually another big benefit of using free software.