PlaneShift and free software

On the download page of PlaneShift I see big letters ‘Fully Free Cross-Platform MMORPG’ and ‘Open Source Development!’. They provide the source code of their client, while writing how this helps user’s freedom and security. (I prefer using clearer terms like free software and copyleft for the exact things that they praise. While I played PlaneShift many years ago, I do not have any opinion on it beyond what I write in this essay, since I’m not interested in multiplayer games.)

However, they write that they need ‘some additional bounds [in the license] to keep safe the work of [their] artists and to ensure project success’. This both supports false assumptions (there are safe and successful projects releasing fully free cultural works) and significantly reduces the benefits of their licensing for user’s freedom and security.

They have clearly explained their licensing and its rationale. Source files are licensed under the GPL, while artwork, text and rules in the game use a custom nonfree license (called the PlaneShift Content License).

Despite using a free and copyleft license, the client has significant restrictions on user’s freedom:

  • ‘You cannot distribute the client, sell it or gain any profit from it’
  • ‘You can use our client only to connect to Official PlaneShift Servers’

So of the free software freedoms only a small part of ‘the freedom to study how the program works’ applies. It does not belong ‘to the community of OS developers’, it belongs to Atomic Blue, the organization running PlaneShift. While their licensing is rationalized by making forking as hard as possible, all benefits of free software that they write about require forking.

The ‘content’ license is short and simple. It forbids any distribution or modification of the work, allows using it only (personally) with their official servers and ‘a Planeshift Client, distributed by Atomic Blue’, and disclaims all warranty.

I’m not able to understand what their encouragement for users to ‘experiment with mods and changes to either [their] source code and to [their] art assets’ might mean. Are they recommending infringing their copyright or promoting fair use in a very unclear way?

The requirement to use the artwork ‘only in conjunction with a Planeshift Client, distributed by Atomic Blue’ might forbid using the client software if built from source. So that software, as normally used, is as free as if it was written on stone tablets, impossible to copy nor modify. All security benefits of its source code being free disappear, when a Mallory just needs to backdoor Atomic Blue’s compiler.

Even if a client built from source could be used, GNU/Linux distros wouldn’t be able to include that game, since they wouldn’t be allowed to distribute the needed artwork. The source might be free, but it’s not useful without the nonfree artwork. (Or is it? Write if you know a free derivative of it working without Atomic Blue’s artwork and servers.)