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I'm going to need two-column layout (more advanced than LaTeX's \twocolumn - I'll need changing the number of columns without starting a new page or column balancing); however, due to the nature of the (commercial) project, I do not want to use multicol because of its license (and yes, I read it carefully, and in my opinion the "moral obligation" to pay a strictly positive fee lies on me, and I would very much prefer to avoid this.). Is there any other (free) LaTeX package which would enable multicolumn typesetting?

(I am considering using ConTeXt, too, but since there are multiple authors who supply manuscripts in LaTeX, and I have a tested template (read: document class) which I only need to modify, this would be rather a drastic step.)

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By the sound of it the "moral obligation" indeed puts it on you. But a) the size of the fee is also on you and depends on how valuable you consider multicol is for your project. I have seen everything from a nice postcard together with the book for which it was used up to substancial fees. And of course many who ignored it. But b) what is wrong in giving something to the community back? You could pay, whatever you feel like to the LaTeX3 fund at TUG. – Frank Mittelbach Jan 12 '12 at 22:06
Frank: I totally agree with all your points. However, in this case (a) the just fee would probably be substantial and (b) there is nothing wrong, and I indeed feel indebted to the TeX community; however, I am barely in black recently, and very much prefer giving back in the form of answering here from time to time, posting on my TeX blog or giving lectures about TeX. And (c) just theoretically - apart from my case - I'm quite interested in the problem of the possibility of typesetting in a few columns in LaTeX with a completely free tool. – mbork Jan 12 '12 at 22:14
I'm sure I can't count the minutes of my life that I spent on developing and enhancing a free LaTeX. The multicol "moral obligation" is a historical accident that just happened, see the discussion in the LPPL paper. But for this reason it is as it is and I do not regret it. As for (a) this honors you but of course you are free to tune it done as much as you like down to null in fact. – Frank Mittelbach Jan 13 '12 at 8:14
concerning (c): you say you need twocolumn without starting a new page or column balancing. but you can't have that both: either you balance or you need to start a new page at least if the first column already got filled. So what is it you are looking after? – Frank Mittelbach Jan 13 '12 at 8:24
@mbork: look at the ctan catalogue, and you'll see that ctan (and the distributions) take the licence to be free. nobody (in their right mind) would expect you to pay more than you can afford, from your pocket; but you said you wanted the package for a commercial enterprise -- if so, perhaps there will be a pay-back time; if so, you could make a donation then. – wasteofspace Jan 13 '12 at 11:14
up vote 14 down vote accepted

An option would be to use the ltxgrid package, developed by Arthur Ogawa as part of the revtex distribution that is used to typeset papers for the American Physics Society (aps.org) journals.

The ltxgrid package was commissioned by the American Physical Society and is distributed under the terms of the LaTeX Project Public License, the same license under which all the portions of LaTeX itself is distributed. See lppl for the license details.

As concerning the "moral obligation" of commercial use of multicol I think the arguments you put forward, are contradictory and your concerns unfounded. You say in the comments:

...the just fee would probably be substantial and (b) there is nothing wrong, and I indeed feel indebted to the TeX community; however, I am barely in black recently...

The moral obligation is to thank the author of the package in any way you can afford, when the commercial venture is on the way and to make a contribution later on as you may deem fit once it starts generating substantial income and as you say the just fee becomes substantial. Same is morally true for any of the free source software, either being TeX related or otherwise. Just don't talk to a lawyer listen to your inner self. As I mentioned in http://tex.stackexchange.com/a/37352/963, the LaTeX project can do with some funding.

Many corporate beneficiaries of both publicly funded research as well as open source software have indigestion when it comes to giving something back to the community. You can find an interesting discussion at the HN thread Research Bought, Then Paid For: Open Access to Science Under Attack. I find this disheartening and a poor trait of the human nature.

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Can you use the minipage environment instead?

If you have multiple minipages defined immediately after each other, they will appear next to each other (as long as the sum of the widths does not exceed \textwidth). For example, to produce a two-column layout, you could use the following:

% first column
This is the first column.\\

This is still in the first column.

%second column
This is the second column.

The other thing you could do is put the text in a two column table:

\begin{tabular}{ p{0.5\textwidth} p{0.5\textwidth} }

column one blah blab blah


column two blah blab blah

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Yes, but then I'll have to do a lot of manual tuning, so it is rather a "last resort" type of thing. – mbork Jan 13 '12 at 12:00

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