The Disruptiveness of Open Rails

An emerging concept in the technology world is so-called disruptive technology. Typically it’s something new, different, re-imagined or that challenges existing norms. Or it’s something existing for however long that continually challenges the prevailing order of things. Open Source software has been firmly lodged in the latter of the two for years and that position seems to show no signs of changing any time soon.

So, what does this have to do with Open Rails? Well, first off, OR has been officially placed in to GNU General Public License for a while now, which places it firmly in the Free and Open Source Software camp. It’s always been intended to be free software; the licensing change simply confirms its mission as an open alternative now that the code foundation is well-established. The collateral effect is that it’s also now firmly lodged in the philosophical realm of Open Source software — and that’s a contentious place to some.

A recent post at one of the largest train simulator forums intended to discuss the current state of OR’s growth versus MSTS’ stagnant set of limitations not only received significant negative attention but ended up being deleted more than once, and not entirely because of the contents or language of negative posts — it was simply dropped. The obvious reaction would be to decry the state of forum moderation, but that really isn’t the point. What is far more intriguing is the fact that the reaction to comparing the two simulators — with a favorable emphasis on Open Rails — would engender sufficient negativity to even warrant moderator edits or a need to delete the thread. Quite simply, Open Rails is apparently a threat to the status quo in the eyes of some.


Most likely, it has much to do with the disruptiveness of open source software and the community it extends from.

Now, first off, it’s best to examine free open source software and determine what it isn’t. It isn’t necessarily “free, as in beer” to use the frequent quote. There is nothing preventing free software from being distributed with a price tag on it. (Notice I didn’t say “sold” there…) Distribution fees, support fees, custom solution fees — those are all very typical was to make a profit from free open source software. Red Hat and IBM have been doing just that with Linux for quite a while, and are very profitable at it.

Free open source software is, however, “free” as in “freedom” or “liberty” means “free.” The GPL prohibits exclusive control over the software. One cannot dictate who has or does not have access to “free” software under the GPL. One cannot revoke the license to use and re-distribute GPL-licensed software. Once set free, software cannot be “recaptured” and chained-down under a new restrictive license. A copyright holder can issue a new version as a fork with different licensing and proprietary code, but the original “free” GPL version can’t be revoked from the marketplace and can still be distributed and developed freely, and for no cost if that’s what people and the marketplace want to do.

That last situation carries some big social and ethical implications, and that’s where the disruptive nature of the GPL and free software comes into play. If I license a software product under the GPL, I give away any claim to control it. I can ask for donations for my time and effort. I can charge for my services in supporting it and modifying it. But I can’t force someone to pay for a copy of it. Ever. I have to give away the source code, too — it’s required by law under the legal terms of putting the GPL on it. So even if I decided to pack it all up and leave in a huff, others can continue to distribute and modify the software. I might be able to trademark the name so that future versions would have to be renamed, forcing a fork in development, but that’s about it. Granting the GPL means giving up control.

Reading most commercial software licenses (besides being headache-inducing) will quickly show that the whole purpose of the license is about control. Not only do you the end-user not own anything, but in many cases the owner-creator retains the right to declare you may no longer use it at their discretion. Yes, Ginormous Software Inc. really does have the right to declare that the copy of Whiz-Bang Fluxinator Pro you purchased five years ago for $90  is officially withdrawn and you must cease and desist using it, delete it from your computer, and if you want to continue using any version, you must purchase an upgrade to Whiz-Bang Fluxinator Super Pro Plus for $190. Yes, it’s legally possible. It would be difficult to enforce, but if it could ever be advanced into a court proceeding, you can probably figure out what would happen. In reality, a few thousand users of original Whiz-Bang Fluxinator Pro would feel morally obligated to delete their copies as well as loudly decry the corresponding millions of others who simply ignored the notice and kept right on using the software, content with no support and no updates, as long as the software kept working. Why? Because, in general, most people use software like appliances. Buy it, use it, and toss it when it doesn’t work or isn’t needed. I suspect most people would be rather irritated if the news went out that the manufacturer of their refrigerator had included an End-User License Agreement that they consented to by plugging in the appliance, and has now decided that all end-users must immediately unplug it and take all the food out. Now. Or be sued. Even if you can’t afford a replacement. Sorry — stop using that fridge or we’ll sue you for infringement. Silly? Quite. But legal constructs like software licenses can have odd consequences, intentional or not.

What does this have to do with Open Rails? Well, GPL-licensed Open Rails escapes all that potential for legal and ethical headaches. It’s “out there” forever. Even if the developers walked away from the project, someone else can still take it up and continue working on it. We’ll be able to download and use copies of it for as long as any of us wishes. No one will be allowed to set up $20 downloads of it, and then threaten anyone else distributing any version at no cost to stop.  On the other hand, someone could offer downloads and an optional support and troubleshooting service for a fee — the service is a value-added option, much like how Red Hat, IBM and others monetize the Linux operating system.

Problems do come into play when a GPL-licensed project is forked into a new, separate project which goes closed-source in full or in part and is released under restrictive licensing. Under strict interpretation of the GPL, it’s possible that the closed, restrictive fork might be infringing, especially if the GPL-licensed components in the project aren’t correctly identified as such in the license and excluded from the other restrictions. It creates a legal minefield for closed-source proponents to adopt GPL components into their products if they want to take them completely into the restrictive-licensing model. Free & open source proponents see that as a good thing, while closed-source and restricted-rights business models see it as a hindrance to their potential for profit. That debate shows no sign of ending any time soon.

So, again, where is Open Rails in all of this? Open Rails is just the simulator application. The GPL that covers Open Rails only covers the code and libraries that make up the OR application and its included utilities (if there are any) in the Open Rails “package”. It doesn’t cover the trains, routes and scenery objects that Open Rails uses. Those are all individual objects and packages, subject to whatever licenses there are that cover them. Simple enough, right? Yes, it is, in the strict sense of legality and licensing. Remember, Open Rails can’t do much of anything without the routes, trains and scenic objects. Where those come from is outside of Open Rails and its license. So you can run the original MSTS licensed content in OR — but first you do need a properly licensed copy of MSTS; that legal requirement doesn’t go away. Or you can run completely free content, as long as you have everything needed — trains, scenery, textures, routes etc. — that are all created unencumbered by restrictive licenses. It’s all up to the end-user and how they choose to use OR.

The same is true of Linux, as an example. Linux is a free, open source operating system for computers. But just because you run Linux, you are not prevented from running closed-source software on it. You’re not prevented from running software that carries a fee attached on Linux. Linux is just an operating system, just as Open Rails is just a train simulation application.

The complication that makes Open Rails disruptive, I believe, is more of a human factor. MSTS is closed-source software that now has an entire ecosystem built up around it. MSTS itself is built on restrictive, controlling licensing as a business and operational model. In turn, content for MSTS is built largely on variations of that model, because the framework was already there in the first place. The community that arose around MSTS built itself on well-known concepts of traditional business software licensing. Even typical “freeware” licensing terms for MSTS content are still based on the control-based premise of typical commercial software licensing: the creator and copyright-holder retains control and grants the end-user license to use the product under specific and often revocable terms. The language all boils down to this: “I made it. It’s mine. You can use it. But only the way I say you can.” I remember similar language being used on the school playground all the time with respect to toys, balls, made-up rules of playground games… In adult life, we humans don’t change that much from the patterns of our childhood.

Now, Open Rails has come knocking on the greater trainsim hobby’s door with the GPL in hand and all that it stands for in the culture of software development. The attitude of the GPL is effectively “I made it. I’m handing it over. Now go have fun with it but please don’t plagiarize it and don’t try to take it away from anybody else who wants to have it. Just make sure everybody else can do the same thing and don’t keep it away from anybody just because you don’t like them.” I didn’t hear that kind of talk on the playground much, except maybe at Sunday school. Or when the art teacher was supervising the playground and imposing her world-view on the kids, which tended to involve a whole lot of peace, love and flower power.

And there’s the difference. It’s a cultural one, and it carries a lot of stereotypical baggage with it. It plays out in the business world more than we care to admit — closed, restrictive protective licensing business models versus open, minimally-restrictive open source business models. The “open source movement” is still a widely-used term. “Movement” is a word we usually hear on the evening news, right next to “opposition”, “rebellion” and lately, “insurgency.” Words and viewpoints carry connotations in our social and cultural frame of reference.

So when Open Rails enters the room, the challenge to the established order of things is at least worth noticing, and at worst, something that stirs up fear and /or defiance. What if the open, free and no-cost nature of OR spills over into the realm of producing other assets, like routes, trains and scenery? Will I be forced to allow repaints of models? Will the base, source 3D shapes and texture files  have to be offered up along with completed models? Can others freely distribute content I’m trying to sell as a business?

Of course not.

Content that works with Open Rails can be licensed as it always has for MSTS. That’s fine.

But, if Open Rails embraces and is embraced by proponents of the free open source culture, will it affect the existing way of doing things.

Maybe. Well, probably, in some form.

Some content for MSTS has already been released under “copyleft”, GNU-style or similar licensing. Some creators prefer to invite other folks in to play in their sandbox since collaboration tends to breed ideas, and they see that as a good way to advance the hobby.

Other creators place a premium on their personal efforts, and prefer to share them in only prescribed ways, with good results too.

But the reality is that both viewpoints are here and both have a valid reason to exist. The problem is when fear, uncertainty and doubt takes over and causes knee-jerk reactions against change.

In fact, openly criticizing and discussing Open Rails versus MSTS ought to be encouraged — Since OR is intended to offer compatibility to MSTS and beyond, discussing and dissecting where it falls short and where it works well can only stand to improve it. Denying discussions of its strengths and weaknesses, of its benefits and failings will only do a disservice to the greater community. At some point MSTS just won’t run on the latest version of Windows, and then where will the hobby be? OR offers a lifeline too useful to ignore or throw away.

Yes, Open Rails disrupts the landscape of the MSTS-based aspect of trainsimming. But it’s not here to take anything away from the hobby. It offers changes, sustainability, and future development beyond what the current infrastructure of MSTS can do. Without it, MSTS will eventually cease to run as computers and Windows advance. With Open Rails, the existing investment in MSTS content can continue running into the future.