Why The GPL Matters A Little Bit Less

The title of an InfoWorld/Yahoo! Tech piece about the GPL tells it: "<a href="http://tech.yahoo.com/news/infoworld/20090810/tc_infoworld/85922" target="_blank">Does the GPL still matter</a>?" The answer seems to be "Yes, but ... "</p>

Serdar Yegulalp, Contributor

August 12, 2009

4 Min Read

The title of an InfoWorld/Yahoo! Tech piece about the GPL tells it: "Does the GPL still matter?" The answer seems to be "Yes, but ... "

The short version is something I've talked about before: usage of open source licensing is balancing out between the GPL's variants and other licenses. Now some more folks are stepping up and saying why, in their experience, this is happening:

Before deciding to pull away from GPL, Haynie says Appcelerator surveyed some two dozen software vendors working within the same general market space. To his surprise, Haynie saw that only one was using a GPL variant. "Everybody else, hands down, was MIT, Apache, or New BSD," he says.

The article cites several objections to the GPL that are starting to surface. One of the biggest: the GPL makes it difficult for a software developer (any developer, not just the creator of the code in question) to profit from their work. The reason the GPL in particular suffers from this is because commercial products that use GPLed code eventually wind up competing most aggressively with themselves -- that is, other products that use GPLed code, since said code is available without having to pay for it in any particular form. (This happens more often with the GPL than other licensing, because of the GPL's specific restrictions.)

A decade ago, open source code and proprietary code tended to stay in their own camps, and so this wasn't as much of a concern. Now that the two are crossing over more often, and have been for some time, the long-term effects of picking a license are clearer.

"The proponents of GPL like to tell people that the world only needs one open source license, and I think that's actually, frankly, just a flat-out dumb position," says Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, one of the many organizations now offering an open source license with more generous commercial terms than GPL.

I used to see it more like this: the GPL was widely-used and well-understood, so why not just stick with what you know and reduce the confusion? But that required me to ignore why people pick other licensing schemes to begin with -- namely, because not everyone is doing the same thing in the first place. Some people are going with a pure open source play; some are open core; some are open add-on; some are selling standalone items; some are selling things to be made into a service; and so on.

All this is also something hinted at in the first quote; note the words "software vendors working within the same general market space". That implies that people working on the same type of the software with the same competitive pressures -- both from each other and from proprietary vendors -- pick similar licensing because it fits that particular need.

No one license covers all of these needs, and certainly not the various GPLs themselves.  Some people, like a good friend of mine, have walked away from the GPL altogether, because they don't see it as a software development license at all -- but rather, as a freedom-to-hack manifesto disguised as a software license. Fine if you like such things, but a great many people still use computers -- and write software -- for the sake of getting real-world work done as opposed to satisfying abstract ideals.

I will leave the last word to the article itself, via a statement that I had to read twice to make sure it was what it said:

Editor's note: InfoWorld tried to interview Richard Stallman, who runs the Free Software Foundation that created and manages the GPL, on this issue, but he demanded control of what we published, so we declined.

I could not have made that up if I tried.

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Serdar Yegulalp


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