Have you ever downloaded an application, loved it, and then found a bug with no one available to fix it? How long do you wait before you try to fix it yourself? Should you? Can you legally sell your fix to others with the same problem? Who owns the app once it’s been abandoned in the wild?
These are the questions that have arisen from a dust up between the author of a wildly popular (and discontinued) piece of software, called Visualhub, and Kagi, the company that handled credit card payments and issued unlocking codes for the software in its original form.
Here’s what happened:
Eons ago, in 2006, a little piece of software called Visualhub hit the Mac software scene, helping to simplify the process of converting video files from one format to another. This was around the same time that YouTube was becoming popular, and the $23.32 price was hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars less than competing applications. Visualhub’s simplicity and quirky warning messages like “Don’t, you’ll screw it all up!” added to the value proposition for budding content producers on a budget.
Customers bought Visualhub through Kagi, which formed in 1994 and dreamed up the “app store” long before iPhones and iPads made the concept a household name. Kagi helped simplify payment processing for small software developers and is a well-respected name in the independent developer world.
In 2008, Visualhub author Tyler Loch made the decision to stop working on the product. He shut his one-man company down, took Visualhub off the market, and stopped supporting existing customers. The decision came as a shock to the Mac community, and Loch cited personal issues as the reason.
“The decision was all mine. No lawyers or other nasties involved. The work was adversely affecting my health, my relationships, and my other responsibilities, too much to bear. It was a very tough decision, and it’s one that I hope was the right choice for me,” he wrote to news aggregator BoingBoing in 2008.
Loch’s final version of Visualhub continued to work for its thousands of users through two updates of the Mac’s OS X operating system. Loch released source code to a revised version of Visualhub he was developing at the time in the hopes that an open source project would continue to develop it. While a few projects began, none came up with a finished product.
In July, early adopters who installed Apple’s OS X Lion upgrade discovered that Visualhub was no longer functional. The fix turned out to be an easy one (for computer geeks, anyway) and Loch released a few files that could be installed by “opening up” the Visualhub application file and replacing a few files inside. The update was not without risk – Visualhub can no longer be downloaded so if a backup copy wasn’t made it would no longer be usable at all.
When those attempting the upgrade had trouble, they began calling Kagi for help. Kagi often answers simple questions from users of the payment processor even though the individual software developer is ultimately responsible for maintaining their product. In the case of Visualhub, Kagi CEO Kee Nethery said Visualhub quickly became a “support nightmare.”
“What we initially did was forward people over to Tyler’s update page that has three Applescripts [posted],” Nethery said, “Personally I don’t find that to be a problem. Most of the people we deal with did have a problem and it’s way past their comfort level.”
What Kagi did next became a major topic of discussion throughout the independent developer community.
Kagi emailed customers of Visualhub the evening of Aug. 15 offering a $4.99 updater to automate the fix, utilizing the code Loch posted on his website. The update also included an additional enhancement another developer made to the open source video processing engine that powers Visualhub.
Kagi has not updated a product like this before, as Nethery says these kinds of functionality patches are “trivial” for someone who is maintaining an active product. Nethery expressed frustration with Loch and his decision to abandon a successful product.
“We’ve never had someone walk away from a business before,” he said.
Loch, who just wanted Visualhub to fade into the sunset, reacted angrily to Kagi’s move.
“We began to realize that our entire customer base (or close to it) had been contacted with an advertisement for the $5 “vHub Updater,” something I’ve never been involved with, which touts our software’s name and company name — front and center,” Loch wrote in a statement, “I gave no permission and had no prior knowledge of Kagi hosting, redistributing, and indirectly selling the components I wrote in their product.”
The spat raises an interesting question of copyright, and what rights a software developer has for a product that has been discontinued. Richard Twilley, an intellectual property attorney at McCormick, Paulding & Huber in Hartford, says Kagi’s actions could have opened the door to a number of legal issues, but ultimately Loch may not have much he could claim in damages even if he chose to seek a legal remedy.
“Loch would have an extremely difficult time in proving damages if he hasn’t supported VisualHub in years and isn’t even selling his version of the patch,” Twilley said in an email yesterday.
Ultimately, this may be a case of begging forgiveness over permission, or perhaps a rather blunt way of trying to open a dialog. The attention the conflict received from the tech news media led to a direct dialog between Nethery and Loch. Nethery agreed to stop sales of the unofficial updater immediately in exchange for Loch agreeing to offer his own version of the automated updater in a few weeks.
Loch is making no promises for future updates, however.
“Enjoy VisualHub for a little while longer, until Apple discontinues support for AppleScript Studio apps or 32bit apps or non-sandboxed apps,” Loch warns on his website.