Why searchcode.com isn't 100% free software
2014/10/10 (765 words)

The recent surge in attention to searchcode from the Windows 9/10 naming fiasco resulted in a lot of questions being raised about searchcode’s policy about free software (open source). While the policy is laid out on the about page some have raised the issue of the ethics about using such a website which is not 100% free (as in freedom).

For the purposes of the rest of this post “free software” is going to refer to software defined as not infringing freedom rather then free as in beer.

Personally I believe in the power of free software. Personally I have contributed to a projects over the years, either submitting bug reports, patches/pull requests, supplying feedback or releasing my own code under a permissive license. With searchcode my policy has been to contribute back where it makes personal sense (I will get to the personal part later). This includes so far opening all of the documentation parsers into the DuckDuckGo Fathead project, releasing a simple bug tracker I was using and by promising to donate 10% of profits to free software projects which I find most beneficial.

The personal portion is the important one to take note of here. The main reason why searchcode is not 100% free software is the support burden it would create for myself. I am running searchcode 100% on my own time, using my own tools, servers, software and hardware paid for by myself. All of this takes part outside my day job. I really do not have the time to deal with the support overhead that is bound to come from opening such a project.

How do I know it will create such an overhead? Consider the following personal examples. Search for “decoding captchas” in your choice of search engine. Somewhere near the top you will find an article hosted on this website I wrote several years ago. The article was written so that anyone trying to decode a CAPTCHA would have a good foundation of ideas and code to work from. To date, this single article has resulted in nearly an email every day from someone asking for assistance. This would not normally be a problem, except that 99% of the emails consist of either questions that the article already answered, or something to the effect of “I want to decode a captcha, plz supply the codes in VB”. Polite responses to such emails where I state I will not do this even if I were being and that everything required is already available have resulted in abuse and threats.

Another example is from the following collection of posts and the source on github. This small collection of posts also produces a lot of email from people asking questions. To reduce the overhead I ended up writing a follow up post which I can redirect a lot of the questions to. Even with both these resources I still get a lot of questions about how they can just set things up and have it working.

My point here isn’t to complain. I wrote the above knowing I would get requests for help. I usually amend the post in question when asked a few times for details. Generally I enjoy responding to each request. The issue is that searchcode is a lot more complicated then the above projects combined and the support requests that are bound to come from opening it with no obvious benefit to me outweigh any benefits I am likely to see. I could indeed write documentation for this but since I do not believe in infrastructure as text documents I prefer to keep it all as code.

You might note that I am being purely selfish about this, and that opening is not necessarily for my benefit but the benefit of others and you would be right. However you also need to remember that it shouldn’t be detrimental to me either. Keep in mind searchcode makes no money and is a side project which fills a need I had and which I am happy working on on a day to day basis.

That said, if I ever get bored of searchcode and close it down I promise to release 100% of the source as free software. I also will revisit this current policy if searchcode ever produces income beyond covering hosting expenses.

I hope this clears up some of the questions that keep popping up. If you disagree (and I am sure many do) feel free to email me stating outlining your reasons. I am not above changing my mind if delivered a well reasoned argument.