ANVC Scalar looks interesting, but isn’t quite open source yet.

ANVC Scalar logo

ANVC Scalar looks very promising:

Scalar is a free, open source authoring and publishing platform that’s designed to make it easy for authors to write long-form, born-digital scholarship online. Scalar enables users to assemble media from multiple sources and juxtapose them with their own writing in a variety of ways, with minimal technical expertise required. …

The feature list and the showcase look great. If this tool is even half as good as it seems to be, the world will be a better place.

There’s just one problem: the code isn’t open source.

I couldn’t find the source code linked to from their site. [Update: I eventually found a link to it, when I re-trawled the site one last time after having already written most of this post. The link is from their sign-up page, but the license stated there, the ECL-2.0, is not the same license as actually found in their source code snapshot. See below for details.]. There’s a contact form, which one could use to ask them for the source code, but hmm, that’s not how these things are usually done. The only message I could find about development was this:

Development Roadmap: Scalar is in ongoing development. This spring 2013 beta release provides broad public access to the platform via the Scalar servers (click the orange “sign up” button to get started.) While many authors have experimented with Scalar during our alpha phase, we are eager to roll the platform out to even more users. We look forward to hearing from you.

It’s perfectly fine to be planning to be open source and just not have gotten there yet, of course (though it’s usually a much better strategy to just be open from day one instead of waiting for everything to be perfect before going public under an open source license — the advantages of open source are greater the sooner in the development process you open up). But what the Scalar site says is that the software is open source: present tense. That’s only meaningful if there is source code released publicly under an open source license.

I finally resorted to Google: search://github anvcscalar/ (after github+scalar didn’t get useful results), and found their Github repository at github.com/anvc/scalar:

Congratulations on discovering Scalar, the next generation in media-rich, scholarly electronic publishing!

If you just want to create a Scalar project, the easiest route is to work from our servers. You can register and learn more at http://scalar.usc.edu/scalar/ . Using the version of Scalar that is hosted on our servers guarantees that you are working on the most up-to-date version of the software. During our beta phase, updates will continue to happen with some frequency as features are added, user feedback is incorporated and Scalar continues to broaden the horizons of electronic publishing. If you are technically inclined and decide to host your own version of Scalar, you’re free to customize and modify it in any way, but it’s up to you to download, install and troubleshoot updates as they become available.

We are also very grateful for all feedback based on your experiences using Scalar. We are especially interested to know where and how you are using it, innovative or unexpected uses of Scalar, requests for features, opportunities for future development, potential press, archive or scholarly society partnerships, as well as reports on any bugs or difficulties you may experience. Learn more at http://scalar.usc.edu/scalar/

So, is the open source code to Scalar really here? Well… sort of and sort of not. There is a complete source tree, and an “INSTALL.txt” file whose instructions look like they would get that version of Scalar up and running. But there’s only one significant code commit, from 11 days ago (March 30th): the initial import of a source code snapshot, under their own custom license that does not appear to be an open source / free software license as recognized by the OSI and the FSF. The restrictions placed by the license are not onerous, but I’m not sure the indemnification clause is compatible with the Open Source Definition, and clause 4 disallows anonymous and pseudonymous redistribution of modified versions, which I believe is also incompatible (as well as being a bad idea):

4. Any files that have been modified must carry notices stating the nature of the change and the names of those who changed them.

There are other potential problems with the license, but I won’t go into them here. The point is, this is not an open source license. So, stacking up the situation:

  • You can’t find the code from their site, at least not from the expected places. But if you’re persistent and use a search engine, you can find it.

  • They’re not doing development in the open. Instead, they’ve dumped one code snapshot out to the public, and it’s not clear at what intervals they will put out the next ones. There’s no public forum for development discussion, nor is there any public bug tracker. (Alternatively: maybe these things all exist and I just couldn’t find them?)

  • The license is not an open source license, though this appears to be more by accident than design — they clearly do intend to be open source. The best way would just be to use a recognized open source license, because even if they fixed the issues in theirs, people would still have to learn yet another custom one-off license. (There’s no need for them to spell out the trademark protections as they do because a copyright license does not imply trademark permissions anyway.)

It’s the point about not being under an open source license that makes them “officially” not yet open source. But the other points are important too. While you can be technically open source while doing development in a closed manner, why would you want to?

None of the above denigrates their technical achievement so far: the software is pretty exciting, and I hope these issues get resolved soon, because it would be great to have a tool like this available as open source software. I took the time to write about Scalar both because the project looks so interesting, and because what their current situation (open-source-wise) is not uncommon. We often see projects using the words “open source” without quite getting the tune. Fortunately, it’s easy to fix if they want to.

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