Rocrail changed License to some dodgy non-free non-License

The Background Story

A year ago, or so, I took some time to search the internet for Free Software that can be used for controlling model railways via a computer. I was happy to find Rocrail [1] being one of only a few applications available on the market. And even more, I was very happy when I saw that it had been licensed under a Free Software license: GPL-3(+).

A month ago, or so, I collected my old Märklin (Digital) stuff from my parents' place and started looking into it again after +15 years, together with my little son.

Some weeks ago, I remembered Rocrail and thought... Hey, this software was GPLed code and absolutely suitable for uploading to Debian and/or Ubuntu. I searched for the Rocrail source code and figured out that it got hidden from the web some time in 2015 and that the license obviously has been changed to some non-free license (I could not figure out what license, though).

This made me very sad! I thought I had found a piece of software that might be interesting for testing with my model railway. Whenever I stumble over some nice piece of Free Software that I plan to use (or even only play with), I upload this to Debian as one of the first steps. However, I highly attempt to stay away from non-free sofware, so Rocrail has become a no-option for me back in 2015.

I should have moved on from here on...


Proactively, I signed up with the Rocrail forum and asked the author(s) if they see any chance of re-licensing the Rocrail code under GPL (or any other FLOSS license) again [2]? When I encounter situations like this, I normally offer my expertise and help with such licensing stuff for free. My impression until here already was that something strange must have happened in the past, so that software developers choose GPL and later on stepped back from that decision and from then on have been hiding the source code from the web entirely.

Going deeper...

The Rocrail project's wiki states that anyone can request GitBlit access via the forum and obtain the source code via Git for local build purposes only. Nice! So, I asked for access to the project's Git repository, which I had been granted. Thanks for that.

Trivial Source Code Investigation...

So far so good. I investigated the source code (well, only the license meta stuff shipped with the source code...) and found that the main COPYING files (found at various locations in the source tree, containing a full version of the GPL-3 license) had been replaced by this text:

Copyright (c) 2002 Robert Jan Versluis,
All rights reserved.
Commercial usage needs permission.

The replacement happened with these Git commits:

commit cfee35f3ae5973e97a3d4b178f20eb69a916203e
Author: Rob Versluis <>
Date:   Fri Jul 17 16:09:45 2015 +0200

    update copyrights

commit df399d9d4be05799d4ae27984746c8b600adb20b
Author: Rob Versluis <>
Date:   Wed Jul 8 14:49:12 2015 +0200

    update licence

commit 0daffa4b8d3dc13df95ef47e0bdd52e1c2c58443
Author: Rob Versluis <>
Date:   Wed Jul 8 10:17:13 2015 +0200


Getting in touch again, still being really interested and wanting to help...

As I consider such a non-license as really dangerous when distributing any sort of software, be it Free or non-free Software, I posted the below text on the Rocrail forum:

Hi Rob,

I just stumbled over this post [3] [link reference adapted for this
blog post), which probably is the one you have referred to above.

It seems that Rocrail contains features that require a key or such
for permanent activation.  Basically, this is allowed and possible
even with the GPL-3+ (although Free Software activists will  not
appreciate that). As the GPL states that people can share the source
code, programmers can  easily deactivate license key checks (and
such) in the code and re-distribute that patchset as they  like.

Furthermore, the current COPYING file is really non-protective at
all. It does not really protect   you as copyright holder of the
code. Meaning, if people crash their trains with your software, you  
could actually be legally prosecuted for that. In theory. Or in the
U.S. ( ;-) ). Main reason for  having a long long license text is to
protect you as the author in case your software causes t trouble to
other people. You do not have any warranty disclaimer in your COPYING
file or elsewhere. Really not a good idea.

In that referenced post above, someone also writes about the nuisance
of license discussions in  this forum. I have seen various cases
where people produced software and did not really care for 
licensing. Some ended with a letter from a lawyer, some with some BIG
company using their code  under their copyright holdership and their
own commercial licensing scheme. This is not paranoia,  this is what
happens in the Free Software world from time to time.

A model that might be much more appropriate (and more protective to
you as the author), maybe, is a  dual release scheme for the code. A
possible approach could be to split Rocrail into two editions:  
Community Edition and Professional/Commercial Edition. The Community
Edition must be licensed in a  way that it allows re-using the code
in a closed-source, non-free version of Rocrail (e.g.   MIT/Expat
License or Apache2.0 License). Thus, the code base belonging to the
community edition  would be licensed, say..., as Apache-2.0 and for
the extra features in the Commercial Edition, you  may use any
non-free license you want (but please not that COPYING file you have
now, it really  does not protect your copyright holdership).

The reason for releasing (a reduced set of features of a) software as
Free Software is to extend  the user base. The honey jar effect, as
practise by many huge FLOSS projects (e.g. Owncloud,  GitLab, etc.).
If people could install Rocrail from the Debian / Ubuntu archives
directly, I am  sure that the user base of Rocrail will increase.
There may also be developers popping up showing  an interest in
Rocrail (e.g. like me). However, I know many FLOSS developers (e.g.
like me) that  won't waste their free time on working for a non-free
piece of software (without being paid).

If you follow (or want to follow) a business model with Rocrail, then
keep some interesting  features in the Commercial Edition and don't
ship that source code. People with deep interest may  opt for that.

Furthermore, another option could be dual licensing the code. As the
copyright holder of Rocrail  you are free to juggle with licenses and
apply any license to a release you want. For example, this  can be
interesing for a free-again Rocrail being shipped via Apple's iStore. 

Last but not least, as you ship the complete source code with all
previous changes as a Git project  to those who request GitBlit
access, it is possible to obtain all earlier versions of Rocrail. In 
the mail I received with my GitBlit credentials, there was some text
that  prohibits publishing the  code. Fine. But: (in theory) it is
not forbidden to share the code with a friend, for local usage.  This
friend finds the COPYING file, frowns and rewinds back to 2015 where
the license was still  GPL-3+. GPL-3+ code can be shared with anyone
and also published, so this friend could upload the  2015-version of
Rocrail to Github or such and start to work on a free fork. You also
may not want  this.

Thanks for working on this piece of software! It is highly
interesing, and I am still sad, that it  does not come with a free
license anymore. I won't continue this discussion and move on, unless
you  are interested in any of the above information and ask for more
expertise. Ping me here or directly  via mail, if needed. If the
expertise leads to parts of Rocrail becoming Free Software again, the 
expertise is offered free of charge ;-).


Wow, the first time I got moderated somewhere... What an experience!

This experience now was really new. My post got immediately removed from the forum by the main author of Rocrail (with the forum's moderator's hat on). The new experience was: I got really angry when I discovererd having been moderated. Wow! Really a powerful emotion. No harassment in my words, no secrets disclosed, and still... my free speech got suppressed by someone. That feels intense! And it only occurred in the virtual realm, not face to face. Wow!!! I did not expect such intensity...

The reason for wiping my post without any other communication was given as below and quite a statement to frown upon (this post has also been "moderately" removed from the forum thread [2] a bit later today):


I think its not a good idea to point out a way to get the sources back to the GPL periode.
Therefore I deleted your posting.

(The phpBB forum software also allows moderators to edit posts, so the critical passage could have been removed instead, but immediately wiping the full message, well...). Also, just wiping my post and not replying otherwise with some apology to suppress my words, really is a no-go. And the reason for wiping the rest of the text... Any Git user can easily figure out how to get a FLOSS version of Rocrail and continue to work on that from then on. Really.

Now the political part of this blog post...

Fortunately, I still live in an area of the world where the right of free speech is still present. I found out: I really don't like being moderated!!! Esp. if what I share / propose is really noooo secret at all. Anyone who knows how to use Git can come to the same conclusion as I have come to this morning.

[Off-topic, not at all related to Rocrail: The last votes here in Germany indicate that some really stupid folks here yearn for another–this time highly idiotic–wind of change, where free speech may end up as a precious good.]

To other (Debian) Package Maintainers and Railroad Enthusiasts...

With this blog post I probably close the last option for Rocrail going FLOSS again. Personally, I think that gate was already closed before I got in touch.

Now really moving on...

Probably the best approach for my new train conductor hobby (as already recommended by the woman at my side some weeks back) is to leave the laptop lid closed when switching on the train control units. I should have listened to her much earlier.

I have finally removed the Rocrail source code from my computer again without building and testing the application. I neither have shared the source code with anyone. Neither have I shared the Git URL with anyone. I really think that FLOSS enthusiasts should stay away from this software for now. For my part, I have lost my interest in this completely...