Note: Chumby representative Andrew “Bunnie” Huang has replied to this thread, and I have in turn replied to his response with more questions. I encourage you to read through all the comments for more detail. Finally, I should point out that I am not an attorney and nothing herein should be considered legal advice.
Chumby is a WiFi-connected microcomputer that runs small widgets and programs via a customized, stripped down Linux operating system and Flash Lite player. It’s small, cute, and relatively cheap (US$179). But most of all, the company says Chumby is “completely hacakble,” with open specifications for its software, hardware, and even its casings and coverings.
In addition to an always-connected wireless network, Chumby also sports a touchscreen and an accelerometer. Thanks to the touch/shake sensitivity as well as its small size it could become an interesting platform for experimental software and games. Even though Chumby runs solely on AC power (there is no battery option), its leashed status might prove an interesting constraint. What kinds of software might be conducive to the nightstand or the kitchen counter?
The company makes lavish use of the rhetoric of openness — claims that the device can be liberally hacked and built upon. On their developer page, Chumby cites “open-source” as a value, and they even compare their device to the hobbyist sensibilities that got microcomputers off the ground in the 1970s:
Ahhh, remember back when the Apple II shipped with complete source code for its BIOS and schematics? We are happy to bring this tradition back to the public.
The marker of relief (“Ahh”) only underscores what a breath of fresh air is Chumby’s wanton openness. One can find further support for freedom on the developer forums, where Chumby employees casually discuss the radicalism of their purportedly open ways. “I guess our Open business model makes some folks nervous,” says Chumbian Duane, talking about an encounter with a competitor at the CES tradeshow.
But there is a problem. A big one. And you’ll only find it if you read the SDK/HDK license agreement like I did, a deed replete with all the legalize one expects to hide disappointments. To wit:
3.3 License to Licensee Applications and/or Devices. You retain your ownership rights in your innovations. If you publish, distribute, or otherwise make available any Licensee Application or Modified Device or any related descriptions or specifications, you hereby automatically grant to Chumby a non-exclusive, transferable, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free, and worldwide right and license under all Intellectual Property Rights to use, reproduce, modify, create derivative works of, and distribute and to make, have made, use, import, offer to sell and sell, and otherwise exploit such Licensee Applications and/or Modified Devices and any modifications, improvements, or enhancements they embody; except that this license does not apply to any Licensee Applications that you make available to the public under the GNU General Public License version 2.0.
In summary, that means that Chumby Industries, Inc. can do whatever they want with the things you make for their platform. Yikes.
Who knows if Chumby (the device) will ever be a viable commercial platform, but this clause insures that Chumby (the company) can always grandfather away rights to the most successful products. People complain when Apple copies successful third-party projects (e.g. Dashboard vs. Konfabulator), or when Microsoft or Google (yes, the “saintly” Google) buys competitors only to shut them down, but don’t those practices at least give the third parties a legitimate run at their own success? Chumby’s license would be akin to granting Microsoft free, unlimited rights to anything you create with VisualStudio — or Microsoft Word, for that matter.
The cynic might point out that there were signs of Chumby’s less than open intentions. It was first revealed at the prestigious, if misguided Foo Camp in 2006, a haven for Silicon Valley technofetishists who love the idea of openness so long as they get to reap the spoils. Foo Camp is run by Tim O’Reilly, who also coined the term “Web 2.0,” a concept that has come to mean harnessing the “creativity” (i.e. labor) of others for proprietary ends. Likewise, when companies like Google, Amazon.com, and Facebook provide “free access” to services and SDKs, they gain intangible social benefits from appearing open, no matter what hidden fees, controls, or ownerships (usually of data) come attached.
Then again, the optimist GPL proponents will point out that the clause offers an out for GPL licensed work. As Mark Nelson pointed out to me, this might have been because they feared reprisals from the GNU community, who would clearly be interested in such an open device. But I suspect that there are simpler reasons: the system runs on Linux, so it probably uses components that themselves are GPL licensed, thus requiring the GPL option. No matter the case, Chumby could still distribute your GPL’d work themselves under their own shingle, or use it to create derivative works. And GPL shouldn’t be the only option for developers who want to control the conditions of use for their creations.
What I find most insidious is how Chumby’s pretense of openness doesn’t match its reality. I’ve written before about my displeasure with Apple’s deathgrip on iPhone and Nintendo’s on the Wii, although both of those platforms seem poised to open considerably. Nevertheless, at least they plainly stated their unwillingness to allow third-party development, effectively pushing such hacks into the black market. Chumby gives the irresponsible, immoral, and perhaps illegal (I’m thinking about false advertising here) impression that they are providing an open platform when, in fact, they are mustering yet another attempt to profit from the appearance of openness, and the labor of their own customers.