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Chapter 13: iText Software Corporation


Opening Quote  

When I first encountered the quote "Givers have to set limits, because takers rarely do," I thought it was about open source software. I was surprised that it was originally written by the "unshockable queen of advice", Irma Kurtz, who wrote a column for Cosmopolitan Magazine.


I was interviewed about my BizIdee participation. I told the journalist I hoped to get good coaching.
article about iText and BizIdee in Metro

First Salespeople

It took a while before I met our salespeople on commission in person. This is a picture taken in 2012, with me, Kevin Brown and Michael Bradbury.
Bruno Lowagie, Kevin Brown, Michael Bradbury
© 2012, personal collection Lowagie-Willaert

AGPL and Commercial

Many years after the license change, we created this video to explain the AGPL.


There were different departments of the Belgian Government that were using iText 2, but hardly anyone at those departments was interested in talking to me in 2008-2009, and even less in purchasing a license.
When iText was still available under the LGPL/MPL, I tried in vain engaging in a business relationship with companies such as Smals, an integrator that was—and still is—building applications for the Belgian government. Many years later, in January 2018, I discovered that Smals had introduced the AGPL version of iText in some applications without complying with the rules of the open source license. As this opened an old wound, I shared this information on Facebook (readers of my book will understand that I had several other issues at that time).

I received a lengthy mail from the CEO of Smals in response:
mail from CEO Smals
The CEO starts by saying that he has studied Law and that he also has been teaching IP for many years. He then goes on by giving three reasons why he thinks the AGPL isn't binding. Reason 3 for example, is that an agreement is only valid when two parties explicitly agree. The rest of the mail is a long lecture, explaining, for instance, that the rules for the government are different from the rules of private companies.

I answered his mail by attaching a ruling of a judge of the US District Court (Northern District of California):

Defendant contends that Plaintiff’s reliance on the unsigned GNU GPL fails to plausibly demonstrate mutual assent, that is, the existence of a contract. Not so. The GNU GPL, which is attached to the complaint, provides that the [open source software] user agrees to its terms if the user does not obtain a commercial license. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant used [the open source software], did not obtain a commercial license, and represented publicly that its use of [the open source software] was licensed under the GNL GPU. These allegations sufficiently plead the existence of a contract.

In other words: a license such as the (A)GPL is legally binding.

Confronted with this "new" knowledge, the CEO of Smals replies that, based on my comments, all applications that used iText were verified:
mail from CEO Smals

My information was correct: four of those applications had been upgraded from using iText 2 (LGPL/MPL) to using iText 5 (AGPL). However, no commercial license was purchased for the government's use of iText 5. As the AGPL applies in this case, Smals / the government was obliged to make all the source code that was using iText in a network environment available for free as AGPL software.
To "solve" this problem, the CEO explains that Smals was either going to downgrade the applications to using iText 2—which was at that time nine years old, hence obsolete— or replace iText with Adobe LiveCycle—a product that was declared End-of-Life by Adobe and for which core technical support was discontinued as of March 2018.

While you can't possibly accuse the CEO of Smals of being impolite, I hope you understand my problem with his attitude. First, the CEO tries to overwhelm me with his expertise with respect to IP. When I prove him wrong, he decides to serve the Belgian Government obsolete software, rather than engaging in a commercial relationship with iText.
You may have read the article Open Source Developer Intends To Block Belgian Government From Using His Technology Over Tax Dispute (May 20, 2009) on TechCrunch. The CEO of Smals, often referred to as the IT-czar of the Belgian Federal Government in the media, was one of the people that drove me to act of despair. The behavior of the Belgian government was also one of the reasons—not the only reason—that made me decide changing the iText license from the MPL/LGPL to the AGPL. In the early years, it was easier for me as a Belgian to sell licenses to the American government than to my own, Belgian government.
Fortunately, times have changed. iText has done great projects for the Belgian government, such as the digitalization project of DABS (the Database of Civil Registry Records) in close cooperation with integrator DXC Technology. People like the CEO of Smals have become the exception, not the rule.

Google and Open Source Guidance

Before starting the first iText company, I asked Google's Open Source Program Manager for guidance. This was the answer I received:
Reply from Google
I also have a mail in which he offers to send me goodies as a Thank You for Google's use of iText. That was not what I expected. I had hoped that the value my work brought to Google was worth more than a T-shirt and a mug. Unfortunately, it wasn't. I remembered this answer when I made the decision to move from the LGPL/MPL to the AGPL.

For more info about Chris DiBona's stance on the AGPL, read the article Google open source guru: 'Why we ban the AGPL':

"This might sound a little jerky, but a lot of the [available] AGPL software, we don't need to use," he said. "It addressed areas where we already have software. So there isn't a lot of call for it."

Google was using iText 2 in Google Analytics, Google Docs, and Google Calendar. It stopped upgrading to newer versions after iText became AGPL.

Other Frustrations

This is me in 2011, explaining some of the "hidden" work the owner of an open source project has to do because of people who think they are entitled to any question sent in any form.

On October 1, 2010, Andrew Binstock published an article entitled The myth of open-source forking . Although iText isn't mentioned, I can now say that this article was about iText, and about some reactions to the decision to migrate from the MPL/LGPL to the AGPL. Some developers threatened to fork iText, but that turned out being more difficult than they thought. There are some iText forks around, but support of the new features in PDF, such as PDF 2.0, PDF/UA, the ETSI-standards for digital signatures, is poor to nonexistent.

Book Quotes  

  • European companies considered FOSS as an inexhaustible resource that was free for them to use in any way they saw fit. They didn’t care about the legal obligations that came with the different FOSS licenses, and they certainly didn’t care about the well-being of the developers who created FOSS.
  • Software integrators charged their customers plenty of money for projects that depended largely on FOSS, but none of those proceeds flowed back to the FOSS developers.
  • As an engineer, I thought that our product was the technology—the software. That’s a common mistake many technical founders make. The long negotiations resulted in the actual product we were selling, the end user license agreement (EULA) that was drafted in close collaboration with the legal departments of our first two customers.
  • It was an advantage that we only had customers in the US. Due to the time difference, the days of our customers coincided with our nights. More than once, we worked after hours to resolve important support tickets. This wasn’t a healthy situation. I would have to decide about where I wanted to go with my business.

Movie References

"We didn’t realize this would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship" is a reference to the movie Casablanca (1942).

Buy Casablanca on Amazon .com / / .fr / .de (these links generate a commission)

Soundtrack for this Chapter  

I listen to music, but my taste in music is questionable. I've selected a handful of songs for every chapters. Sometimes, there's a link to the chapter, sometimes I just like the song.

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