Getting Pretty Lonely

July 2nd, 2009

This very post is delivered to your browser or news reader by the famous and fabulous WordPress blogging system. In my work as the developer of MarsEdit, I am exposed to countless blogging options, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. And yet, I stick with WordPress because it strikes a balance of power and ease of use which feels comfortable to me. Not to mention that Joseph Scott and others are tirelessly working to improve its API.

WordPress is licensed under the terms of the Gnu Public License (GPL) which, in a nutshell, stipulates that you are free to use the software however you like, but if you make changes and distribute those changes, then you must share those changes under the same terms. This simple, radical restriction means that you are prohibited from taking a GPL project and incorporating it with a closed-source project.

Violating The GPL

Violating the GPL is easy. All you have to do is write some code, intermingle it with some GPL code, distribute a changed copy of the original, and refuse to share your contributions. Bam! You’re toast. Assuming the original authors discover your violation and decide to pursue a resolution.

Once a violation occurs, it might be settled privately, or could escalate to legal court procedures. But the most obvious form of resolution is for the author of the changes to release their code to the public under the terms of the GPL.

Depending on how much code you “mixed” with the GPL code, this could mean only a small portion, or it could mean the entire source code of your project. This so-called “viral nature” of GPL is what scares the bejeezus out of companies, large and small, who fear the consequences of having to give up their own intellectual property to the public.

The terms of the GPL sound pretty simple at first read, but due in part to the epic consequences of a violation, there has been a great deal of debate and uncertainty about what legally constitutes a violation. Most of the debate seems to boil down to two questions:

  1. What counts as a change to the original product?
  2. What counts as distribution of those changes?

If you can legally justify that your additions to a GPL project either don’t change or derive from the original product, or haven’t technically been distributed, then you are not subject to the restrictive terms of the license.

Take GIMP, the popular GNU-licensed image editing application. The application supports plugins, analogous to the types of plugins you might find for the commercial, closed-source application Photoshop. A savvy developer may argue that a plugin doesn’t meet the criteria of changing the original application, because the original application still runs in its unaltered condition whether the plugin is there or not.

But promoters of the GPL take the position that plugins, by nature of being loaded into the same code space as other GPL code, do constitute a modification of the original, and are therefore subject to the terms of the GPL. As far as I know this is not a question that has been well-tested in courts.

Let me take a moment to make this abundantly clear: I respect the rights of authors to license their software under whatever terms they choose, including the GPL. In my opinion, all the legal mumbo jumbo ceases to matter once the original author’s intentions are made clear. So if the author of GPL-licensed code clarifies to me that it cannot be run on Sundays, then their GPL means it cannot be run on Sundays. But this is one of the problems with the GPL: its terms are not often understood, even by the authors of GPL-licensed code.

WordPress Themes & Plugins

WordPress supports two explicit forms of extension, each of which may affect the appearance and functionality of the product. Themes tend to work as a “skin” for the appearance of a blog, while plugins tend to introduce completely new features. Since plugins in WordPress are analogous to GIMP or Photoshop plugins, it would stand to reason that they would also be covered by the terms of the GPL. But what about themes?

Themes have been controversial in the WordPress community, as a few commercial business models have sprung up to take advantage of bloggers’ desires for high quality themes at an affordable price. One approach is to distribute “free” themes that contains commercial ads. So you might stumble upon the perfect theme for your blog, only to learn that the glaring “Brought to you by Hostess Cupcakes” line near the bottom of your page cannot be removed.

But the terms of the GPL, if themes are covered, would require that end users be granted the legal right to modify and redistribute their own copy of the theme. Zap the sponsorship, reupload to your site, and you’ve got a free, high quality theme with no ugly ads.

Today, Matt Mullenweg of the WordPress project announced his lawyer-supported opinion that themes are partly covered by the GPL:

I reached out to the Software Freedom Law Center, the world’s preeminent experts on the GPL, which spent time with WordPress’s code, community, and provided us with an official legal opinion. One sentence summary: PHP in WordPress themes must be GPL, artwork and CSS may be but are not required.

If you’re starting with the understanding that WordPress itself is GPL, and WordPress plugins are GPL, then it’s not so much extra hay on the camel’s back, to also clarify that its themes are to some extent GPL. But it got me thinking again about my own blog, and about the restrictions the GPL imposes on the kinds of things I can do with the software that runs it.

GPL Stifles Participation

Now for the most controversial point of this article, where I suggest that the GPL does more to harm collaborative development than it does to help it.

For the purposes of this argument, let me reduce all the source code in the world down to three rough categories. I recognize I have omitted some classes of license here, but for the sake of argument, most projects fall into these camps:

  1. GPL code. Changes may be distributed only in other GPL products.
  2. Liberal-licensed code. (MIT/BSD/Apache/etc). Changes may be distributed anywhere. Appropriate origin-attribution may be required.
  3. Closed-source code. May be distributed only by the copyright owner and other explicit licensees.

Now, there are a few people in the world who, for political or philosophical reasons, will only participate in a GPL project. And for comparable yet opposite reasons, there are some who will only participate in commercial, closed-source projects. But I propose that the vast majority of developers will participate in any project that is advantageous to them.

So let’s imagine a representative, run-of-the-mill developer who is working on a project that falls into each of these three camps. If this developer is not radically committed to their own project’s license, they will naturally look to outside resources in order to bolster the success of their own work.

As the developer evaluates communities to participate in, they must evaluate the legal impact such participation will have on their own project. The closed source communities are, by definition uninviting to outsiders. GPL communities are open and embracing of other GPL developers, but generally off-putting to liberal-license and closed-license developers. Only the liberal-license communities are attractive to developers from all 3 camps.

I know what some of the GPL-enthusiasts are thinking now: “leeches don’t count as community.” Many GPL developers take comfort in the fact that their hard work can’t be quietly taken and incorporated into a commercial product, without any payback of time or money to the original project. But you’re piloting an open source project, and the first step of building a community is to get people in the door. Liberal licenses? Whoo-eee do they ever get people in the door.

If you operate from the presumption that great developers love to build great projects, the first step in any successful open source project is to get as many great developers in the door as possible.

It’s Your Party

Yes, this is just me and my crazy theories. I haven’t done exhaustive research to prove that liberal-license communities thrive more than GPL communities. But the anecdotal examples are staggering. The very foundation of Mac OS X, the operating system through which I’m typing, is thanks to the liberally-licensed FreeBSD operating system.

Looking over to the right of my screen, I’m watching this sentence appear in a live web preview as I type, thanks to the WebKit project, whose liberal license makes it compatible with closed source projects such as Safari, as well as open source efforts such as Google’s Chromium project.

For years, the problem of a generic HTTP client library that runs on every major platform has been addressed by libcurl, whose liberal license has caused it to be embraced by countless companies and projects.

The popular Subversion source control system’s liberal license enabled Sofa, a commercial software business to contribute value to the community with its extremely polished, award-winning client application. Meanwhile, the newly popular distributed source control systems presents three major choices: git, Mercurial, and Bazaar. All are restricted by the GPL-license, and therefore none is likely to inspire development of a Versions-caliber client.

I’ve touched the tip of the iceberg, and yes I’ve neglected to mention some GPL success stories such as Linux, MySQL, and gcc. These communities have thrived to some extent because the passions of the GPL community are strong, but we can’t know whether their success is in spite of the restrictions their license places on participation by the broader developer community.

Speaking of GPL succeses, WordPress is itself an example of monumental success. All of its developers have something to be immensely proud of. But whenever I am reminded that WordPress is GPL, my passion for it takes a bit of a dive. I’m more comfortable with the true freedom of liberally-licensed products. If a liberally-licensed blog system of equal quality, ease of use, and popularity should appear, my loyalties to WordPress would not last long.

It’s your party, and you’re entitled to write the guest list. But take a look around the room: not as many folks as you’d hoped for? Liberally-licensed projects are booming. Speaking for myself, a developer who has been to all the parties, I’m much more likely to pass through the door that doesn’t read “GPL Only.”

128 Responses to “Getting Pretty Lonely”

  1. Dallas Hockley Says:

    Great article. And excellent discussion for the most part in the comments. I think GPL projects are, with the exceptions of the stars, plateauing in many ways. MySQL and Linux are continuing forward, but the ideas for improvements seem to continue to come from many closed or liber-license projects. Many new filesystems have arisen of late after the awkward staggering of ReiserFS and ext3, but I would hazard to say pretty much all of htem are inspired from the ZFS efforts and open sourcing by Sun. Now it looks like there may be improvements beyond where ZFS is at, but not for a number of years. Where is the innovation that isn’t embrace and extend? It still seems to be inside the companies in the vast majority of cases.

    The strong GPL projects all have core contributors being paid by commercial enterprises that need certain capabilities in the projects. I’m not sure which side is leeching from which really in those cases, as it’s not the old altruistic labour of love from the 80s where it was building the GNU suite to break away from AT&T, Sun and others. The projects are getting too big and complex to make progress part-time.

    The world is passing the zealotry by, and I’m not sure the hardest of the GPL adherents understand that as electronics and software becomes more and more ubiquitous in everyone’s lives around the world, that the *vast* majority of users are not coders, and want things to work and be supported. The GPL doesn’t work well for them. BSD/MIT/Apache license styles allow support structures to be built up and leveraged on the code. Those structures also often fund developers to work on the core and contribute back in addition to the commercial works. GPL was making this transition at one point and that ultimately turned into/was purchased by Red Hat. There aren’t many success stories of “GPL support” from a feed the family point of view.

    A GPL license enables a community to advance and contribute and share but greatly decreases the commercial ecosystem around it. One of the GPL projects pointed at, MySQL, isn’t really an altruistic GPL stream, it’s a closed-source venture that releases editions under GPL. It’s a dual-license concept. Linux is the only project supporting large successful GPL support enterprises that gainfully employ people. There just aren’t any others that the average IT person can point to. And Linux (I believe wisely) will not move to GPL 3. I’m seeing a declining relevance in the GPL license family. I’m happy to have other projects pointed out though!

    How is innovation supported in each of the models? Closed source is straightforward. Build it and sell it. Liberal licenses are similar, in that you can embed, credit, extend, innovate and sell it. The community will judge if you extended core and berate the crap out of you if you stay too insular and “leech”, but in general, these endeavours are extension modules, plugins, management systems, using the liberal code as a component. GPL? It’s a service on top of it for support or customization. RMS even noted that you would sell your service to maintain and extend the code in his original writings as I recall. That’s a woefully limited business model, and removes the leverage of the digital medium entirely.

    There’s also a large catch in the GPL of extending. If you extend for a client to feed your family, and it’s rather specialized, you may wind up not getting the changes accepted, or they get removed or changed again. The “tyranny of the majority” as noted above cuts both ways. GCC has shown this, and is one reason that the LLVM/Clang are being vigorously supported by Apple and others. It’s increasingly hard to innovate on that project as it must satisfy everybody, and not everybody likes the ideas. So the innovation and optimization effort is lost to GCC and will be much more freely available with LLVM and Clang. As far as the Apple development I do, I’m loving using LLVM and Clang with XCode over GCC. GCC is literally stuck in development under its own weigh, and LLVM is showing that in neon.

  2. John C. Welch Says:

    As I said earlier, I don’t think gcc would have been as good without GPL forcing the hw manufacturers throwing their improvements back to the community, something they almost certainly would NOT have done without the mandate.

    Every time i see that statement, or variations of it, it strikes me as being based on an unprovable assumption that really isn’t backed by data. :

    “People contribute GPL code back to the community because the GPL forces them to. Why does the GPL force them to? So they’ll contribute, because they wouldn’t otherwise. That gun at their head is why the GPL is better than BSD licenses”

    the problem with this is that it only works if you can show that code contributions by commercial users of BSD code is, or closely approaches zero, and that simply isn’t true. Look at how willing GPL advocates are to rag on Apple, even though Apple makes real, regular, and consistent contributions under BSD licenses, even though they don’t have to*. So the entire “without the GPL forcing them to contribute, they won’t” is based on a false assumption, which is borne out of one person’s assumption that people only do the “right thing” when forced to.

    *(The rampant hypocrisy about the GPL fans’ antipathy towards Apple is revealed when they basically say that because Apple doesn’t open source 100% of all software they write, that the contributions they do make don’t really count.)

  3. Jordan Henderson Says:

    the problem with this is that it only works if you can show that code contributions by commercial users of BSD code is, or closely approaches zero, and that simply isn’t true.

    Perhaps compiler technology is a special case here? Typically, the processor vendors have the most motivation to extend gcc (to provide support for their new processors or new features) and they are least likely to contribute them to their competition, guarding compilation secrets that help their systems look better in benchmarks. The GPL has cut through this.

    Possibly this dynamic relates to OS technology also, thus the many extensions to the Linux kernel contributed back to the community by IBM, HP, Sun and others.

    When have processor makers (Intel, AMD, Others) contributed compilation tech to the community when it wasn’t GPL?

    When have OS Vendors contributed OS technology to the community when it wasn’t GPL? Perhaps there are some examples here recently by Apple. I think Apple is under a lot of pressure from the community to do it, though, a mindset of the Free-as-in-freedom crowd.

  4. John C. Welch Says:

    Perhaps compiler technology is a special case here? Typically, the processor vendors have the most motivation to extend gcc (to provide support for their new processors or new features) and they are least likely to contribute them to their competition, guarding compilation secrets that help their systems look better in benchmarks. The GPL has cut through this.

    nonsense. there are other compilers besides gcc. gcc is not the alpha and omega of compilers. really. As far as what Intel and AMD have done non-GPL related, don’t know, don’t really care. May be something, may be nothing.

    When have OS Vendors contributed OS technology to the community when it wasn’t GPL? Perhaps there are some examples here recently by Apple. I think Apple is under a lot of pressure from the community to do it, though, a mindset of the Free-as-in-freedom crowd.

    you mean besides webkit, bonjour, darwin, etc.?

    As well, considering that people with real money, i.e. customers, can’t make apple do anything, just how much influence do you really think the GPListas have?

    “None” would be the word you’re looking for.

    apple contributes code under a variety of licenses, including BSD, APSL, Apache, etc.

    In fact, a good chunk of Apple’s OS contributions aren’t under the GPL, as the original wasn’t. (BSD, BSD license, etc.) But it appears you’ve made up your mind that without the GPL, there would be no open source whatsoever, so i’m not sure why you care about anyone doing something different.

  5. Richard Venable Says:

    I’m new to this whole licensing issue, so I have a question. Is it possible for the authors of a GPL project to switch the license of their code to a different license? Or is the ownership of their project sucked up by the GPL?

  6. Dallas Hockley Says:

    Richard,

    The crux of it is that you need agreement of all participating authors to change the license, as they assigned the copyright to the license in most cases. Some projects assign stewardship of the rights, so that ALL rights are signed over to a governing body, and that body may change the licensing terms in the future as they see fit. This hasn’t proven too popular though as you’re essentially allowing a third party to own your code, and if they decide to go liberal license or closed source from a given checkpoint, they would be able to. That flies in the face of most philosophies given rise to open source regardless of license. The alternative is to get buy-in from as many people as possible that contributed, and rewrite or remove the portions that were not often involving a major overhaul to avoid infringement or any other entanglements.

    Dual-license scenarios like MySQL solve this by having the core code owned by such a body, and releasing iterations as GPL periodically. Unless you surrender the rights to the MySQL/Sun/Oracle owners, don’t expect your code to get into the core distribution.

    The ownership is actually, given the license changes, temporarily licensed, not sucked up or surrendered. The original authors still have the right to re-license their code contributions under other or even multiple licenses. Only fully assigning the copyright or releasing it as public domain with no encumbrances would allow anyone else to change the license.

    So in short, the authors may change the license of the project in theory. In practical terms with large projects like Linux, this becomes very close to a practical impossibility.

    Hope that helps clarify. At the root of it, it is still the legal rights of copyright that protect all of these licenses and grant the legal standing.

  7. Mark Jaquith Says:

    Mark, which version of the GPL is WordPress licensed under? I’m assuming 2. If so, are y’all planning on moving it to version 3 which is very specifically designed to be as unfriendly as possible to non FSF-approved uses?

    It’s specifically licensed under GPL version 2, with no “or any later version” clause. That plus having hundreds of sometimes pseudonymous code contributors ties our hands.

    It may not be able to become less free than whatever version of the GPL you license it under, but it started off as not being “free” to begin with.

    Absolutely. It’s near-freedom in perpetuity vs complete freedom in the moment. The ideal would be a BSD-style license with everyone voluntarily sharing their changes!

    Freedom at the end of a legal gun is not really freedom […]

    But it is a restriction you take on willingly.

    To 90% of your users, the license doesn’t matter, only the features, and the price.

    Sounds about right. But WordPress’ big feature is its community and marketplace — its plugins and its wealth of available consultants. That wasn’t really available for Movable Type in 2004, partly because certain support aspects were forbidden to third parties by MT’s license. You couldn’t install MT for someone else for pay, for example. So the license may have had some indirect effect on its rapid acceptance by users, because that license allowed for the plugins and the service market to spring up, giving more of a variety of services than Six Apart (or any single company) could ever offer for their proprietary product.

    The changes in the GPL 3 are very much a deliberate finger to business use.

    I’ll have to claim ignorance on this. As GPL 3 isn’t an option for WordPress, and most of what I do now is WordPress-related, I’m not well-versed in the differences. I’d certainly consider a BSD-style license for new original software if I find these differences to be anti-business.

    Being free is not inherently consumer friendly if the product is hard to use, and support consists of “download the source and do it yourself”.

    I agree. But given identical software, a FLOSS version is more consumer friendly. Your free software lock-in escape hatch may involve coding or paying someone else to code for you, but there will be a way out. With a proprietary version of the same software, you may be SOL.

  8. Mark Jaquith Says:

    I’m new to this whole licensing issue, so I have a question. Is it possible for the authors of a GPL project to switch the license of their code to a different license? Or is the ownership of their project sucked up by the GPL?

    If you have the consent of all of the authors of the code (going back to the original authors of the code), you can multi-license it. This is what Six Apart has done with Movable Type Pro and Movable Type Open Source. Anyone who contributes code to MTOS signs over the copyright of that code to Six Apart, so that they retain this control.

    WordPress could not change its license because the individual code contributors own the copyright, and tracking them all down would take longer than just rewriting it from scratch.

  9. What_GPL_means Says:

    HERE’S THE THIRD ATTEMPT TO PUBLISH A COMMENT HERE

    The really interesting topic today that is related to GPL is the inclusion of Mono into a Linux distribution (Ubuntu). Richard Stallman warned of Greeks bearing gifts, and is being bashed by Microsofties and various accompanying softbrains

    In fact all issues with GPL are political in nature.

    1. Copyright and the terrorism of “intellectual property” originate from Corporations becoming transnational and pursuing deindustrialization of the US/metropoly while simultaneously outsourcing production to other places with cheap slave-like labour.
    If classical capitalism kept production of say English textiles in England, murdering Indian weavers with their finished product exports, today even manufacture has been outsourced. This means the only way to claim their huge share of profits is for Corporations to assert they have nebulous “intellectual rights” to what has long been handed over to other peoples.
    This may sound rather harsh, but other views of this issue (more common in mass media) contain a large dose of propaganda: take an example of music industry, which gobbles something like 80% of profits, but purports to speak in the name of “starving authors”.

    2. GPL is first and foremost a political tool – work of a genius – which allowed something unprecedented, a construction of a non-parasitic, non-capitalist model of creation and production, on the lines of the ancient “community” or ‘tribal” efforts, the model of mutually helping and mutually benefiting individuals. If I save tens of thousands with, say, GCC toolchain plus OS and utilities, I will give back something of my efforts.

    3. The danger of GPL is well-recognized by the parasites, the Corporations. The essence of corporate world order, so to say, is to create economic parasitism and deflection of profits from the natural, technological flow of activities. Therefore some time ago an “Open Source” movement spurted from unknown sources to add non-GPL licenses which would neutralize exactly the hated “viral” nature of GPL. Many do not recognize to this day that the idea behind that was to kill GPL, not to expand the falsely named “Open Source” movement.

    4. Slightly later this effort at interception and corporatization of GPL continued with corporations jumping on the bandwagon and creating ‘Linux Foundations”, or purchasing some brands and whole distros (e.g. Suse by the hated Novell, which immediately began to cooperate with Microsoft)

    Ubuntu belongs to this trend. It was set up as a parasitic add-on to create a MS-like GUI environment on top of the real workhorse distribution, the community-created Debian. It was set up by a shady character, some Mark Sh., an Israeli who suspiciously got so rich in South Africa that he could treat himself to flying as a space tourist.
    Then suddenly he turned to parasiting on Debian, and very,very quickly Ubuntu (with the insanely infantile “Hardy Herons” and “Dapper Drakes”) became virtually the main distro for the Mass Media and the lemmings. Who paid for the ads campaign? Why?
    I have no idea what real agenda is pursued by people like that – money or something like putting backdoors into precompiled kernels or simply subverting Linux – I do not know. But this is not good, real, honest work in my eyes.

    5. Now Ubuntu szar, this very Mark Shattleworth, if I got the story correctly, blessed Mono for bundling with their Linux distro, and for the sake of truly unnecessary “personal productivity” i.e. trifle applications. And the lemmings squeak indignantly when RMS warns of the possible trojaning of Linux with MS technologies, as there is a danger of MS later claiming some patent rights or imposing restrictions or incompatibilities.

    6. Another huge topic is the subversion of personal computing and taking away ownership of data from an individual user. A whole strategy exists there, and MS is pushing it with all its might. Again, the Open world stands in natural opposition that stems from its technological nature, again RMS warned of “surreptitious uses of computers”, and again he is not heard.

    7. So basically the question of GPL comes to the two fundamental views of life and work: that of robbing or swindling of everyone by everyone, which is known under the euphemism of “market” today (for the extremists which came after WWII everything is a market, and the generations of westerners got their brainwashing from early childhood) — or cooperative work of members of community.
    The genius of GPL creators was that they managed to engender the second from within the first, and protect their work from greed and dishonesty by wisely turning the legal mechanisms of the parasites against parasites themselves. And this sparkle of humanity is what must be cherished in the increasingly oppressive world of corporate jack-booting and blackmail.

    These are the issues at stake with GPL.

  10. John C. Welch Says:

    ah, i was wondering when one of Stallman’s provocateurs would show up with an incomprehensible rant based on paranoia and ad hominem with no other purpose than to try to shout down any opposing viewpoints by painting all who would disagree as bad, evil people.

    In doing so, of course, you make the point that the GPL has absolutely nothing to do with software or actual freedom, and everything about forcing Stallman’s point of view at the end of the same legal gun you cry so loudly about when it is used in a way inconvenient for you.

    I’m only amazed it took this long.

  11. Jordan Henderson Says:

    nonsense. there are other compilers besides gcc. gcc is not the alpha and omega of compilers.

    GCC is pretty much the end all for Open Source compilers today. I understand that there are some new developments in this area that may challenge this, but certainly, having a high quality compiler that supports many architectures has been a really good thing for the Open Source operating systems, *BSD and Linux in the last 15 years. Would they done just as well with the BSD compiler? I don’t know, but I doubt it. I’ve never heard of any serious use of the BSD compiler. Maybe I’m out of touch.

    you mean besides webkit, bonjour, darwin, etc.?

    webkit and bonjour aren’t OS technologies, they are application technology. Is darwin a real contribution? It was intended to be one, but is anyone really using it?

    As well, considering that people with real money, i.e. customers, can’t make apple do anything, just how much influence do you really think the GPListas have?

    I think Apple has to impress on the development community that they are serious about openness. If people thought they were taking technologies only to lock them down and not contribute back to the community, there’d be a backlash among the tech-savvy that recommend OSX. Why do YOU think they support Darwin?

  12. Christina Warren Says:

    In doing so, of course, you make the point that the GPL has absolutely nothing to do with software or actual freedom, and everything about forcing Stallman’s point of view

    Exactly John!

    God, I was going to try to respond to some of the more intelligent parts of the discussion (which to be fair, is about 90% of it), but the accusation that anyone who disagrees with RMS is a conservative (ha! — I’m liberal and proud, not that that matters AT ALL in this discussion) and then the deluge of nonsense by the anti-Mono nutjobs is just too much. And Mono is GPL… *So over the entire non-issue that is Mono is Ubuntu — which has only been the case for I don’t know, 3 and a half years…*

    Happy 4th of July, everyone.

    Let me just say this — I don’t think any of us here are arguing that anyone doesn’t have the right to license their software under the GPL, on the contrary, it’s merely an argument that the “freedom” offered is only there if your alignment of “free” matches the FSF. That’s not always the case.

    That doesn’t make everything about the GPL bad and it doesn’t mean that any project licensed under the GPL is bad.

  13. DDA Says:

    “HERE’S THE THIRD ATTEMPT TO PUBLISH A COMMENT HERE”

    Wow, rant much? Whatever I might believe about the GPL, this kind of ranting will only make me think less of it and its adherents.

  14. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    In general I feel the tone of the comments is getting close to an “out of control” feeling, so I just want to warn people that I may shut down the comments here soon. Lots of folks have had lots of time to get out their thoughts, and lots of it has been valuable.

    I would agree that the comments from “What_GPL_means” come across as especially rant-ish. I’m never too happy with comments that seem to be more about rambling stream-of-consciousness than actually addressing anybody’s points. But I’m leaving this comment to stand as a representation of this point of view. If other comments come in of similar length and lack of focus, I will take the liberty of moderating them.

    Thanks, everybody, for maintaining a mostly civil tone here.

  15. Dallas Hockley Says:

    @Daniel – I think the conversation is quite productive so far personally. Hopefully we all can keep it logical and factual, and I totally understand and support your right to edit the discussion as you’ve disclosed that up front. Kudos on being open.

    re What_GPL_means – There’s a valuable thread in your posting I believe. The GPL got the idea started in a serious way. I most definitely don’t dispute that as I was there as it gained momentum. I think one thing Daniel was examining in the original post from my read is what’s happening today. Companies have become varying levels of partners, stewards, contributors and yes, leaches across the open source spectrum. As the understanding of the licenses, community and derivative effects evolves, participation and the nature of the communities is changing. The polarization that was present in the original manifesto of the GPL and that is still present in the ideology is not so clear cut. Companies are rarely ideological, and never pure. Such characteristics do not preclude them making valuable contributions to society, communities and projects.

    We all need to avoid making judgements and proclamations with too-broad of a brush, and with only partial information. Polarizing opinions don’t enhance the situation one whit. Microsoft may be legitimately vilified but they too have efforts and valid contributions spanning the GPL through the liberal licenses to proprietary efforts. IBM, Sun, Apple and many others all are valuable contributors and supporters of projects such as Linux, gcc, gdb to name a few. Were you to remove all the contributions of those corporations based on their clouded or non-existent ideologies, the projects would be much reduced from their current capabilities.

    The communities and the project dynamics are changing. Leave the ideologies aside for a minute and lets try to discuss where the dynamics are today, not where they were 15 years ago.

  16. Troy Banther Says:

    I see GPL as a legitimate license. You are free to accept or reject it.

    If you develop and you release it under GPL then you know the requirements of the license.

    You are free to choose.

  17. sporobolus Says:

    i’m exhausted from reading this and can’t to go head-to-head with all the points, but it inspires me to reflect on the middle ground, which i’ve found for myself and which i believe could be helpful:

    i think the conversation is far from over; we need to have vital communities around each of these license models in order to fully explore what is only the beginning of the incredible journey software on which software will take humanity; the end of GPL, or the end of commercial licenses, would be a real tragedy at this stage; so statements of the pattern “i won’t touch x” are less interesting to me than comments along the lines of “i usually prefer x but these are the circumstances under which i’ll use y”; it’s not a zero-sum game, each of these three licence categories are producing tremendous results and together they are greater than the sum of their parts

    i’m left with a few questions:

    1. how would this conversation be different with a proportionate number of end users participating?
    2. how are the communities associated with different licenses qualitatively different?
    3. why hasn’t Drupal been mentioned until now?

  18. Ty Says:

    Aside from ideologies, there is a central idea: the GPL discourages participation. This is likely true.

    But no one chooses projects solely on the license.
    > To 90% of your users, the license doesn’t matter, only the features, and the price.
    This is true for many developers as well. License, features, programming language… they are a few of the many factors governing a project.

    It’s simply not possible to use “what if” scenarios to determine software’s success.

  19. Joshua Meadows Says:

    I don’t think it’s beneficial for GPL advocates to keep regurgitating the mantra of “If you don’t like the GPL, don’t use GPL’d code.”

    Indeed, that seems to be the point of this entry. People don’t like the GPL, and aren’t using it. Companies are certainly taking an issue with it and are refusing to be involved with code that has a license based on an extremist ideology rather than purporting to fill a need.

    So they aren’t using said code; and said code is suffering because less and less resources are available to continue it. Less and less eyes looking at it, less and less use.

    An earlier commenter made the point that 90% of WordPress’ customers don’t care what the license is. I’d say that’s accurate for 90% of the people using any open source project. They don’t care as long as free remains “free, as in cost.” They aren’t looking at the code, they don’t know what GPL is, much less what it entails. But the 10% left does, and most of them are involved in coding such projects, and increasingly they seem to not be invested in the politics, they just want something to work on.

    Having to repeatedly read obnoxious comments to the effect of “if you disagree with it, shove off,” really doesn’t inspire community or participation.

  20. Martin Pilkington Says:

    @Jordan Henderson

    GCC is pretty much the end all for Open Source compilers today.

    It is today, but it has some pretty stiff competition from LLVM which is BSD licensed, which will allow for a much greater uptake and more powerful tools than GCC ever could have.

    webkit and bonjour aren’t OS technologies, they are application technology. Is darwin a real contribution? It was intended to be one, but is anyone really using it?

    You can’t nullify the fact that Apple open sources their kernel simply because it isn’t widely used by others. There is a lot of open source out there that is hardly used, but it is still open source.

    As for OS technologies Apple releases/contributes to that aren’t GPL you have ZFS, xQuartz, FSTools and launchd. They also contribute to various other projects such as LLVM and I believe Apache.

  21. Kaspars Says:

    I think there is one critical point that we all should agree on — developers like to be compensated for their work, even those of Open Source and Free Software.

    Here is my full response: konstruktors.com/blog/wordpress/1309-licencing-proprietary-vs-liberal-vs-gpl/

  22. Jordan Henderson Says:

    @Martin Pilkington

    GCC is pretty much the end all for Open Source compilers today.

    It is today, but it has some pretty stiff competition from LLVM which is BSD licensed, which will allow for a much greater uptake and more powerful tools than GCC ever could have.

    Did you only read my first line above? I pretty much conceded that there were new compilation tools that might challenge GCC, but that we wouldn’t be where we are today without GCC. There’s really little denying that.

    @Joshua Meadows

    So they aren’t using said code; and said code is suffering because less and less resources are available to continue it. Less and less eyes looking at it, less and less use.

    Less and less people are using the Linux kernel? It’s pretty much clear to me that Linux is a huge GPL success story. I don’t beleive that IBM and others would have contributed so much to it were it the case that their competitors could take their work and profit from it without contributing back to level the playing field.

    You and @Ty make the point that the GPL discourages contribution. I think that it does in some cases and doesn’t in others.

    Why is it an either-or? Why can’t we have an ecosystem where some projects are licensed GPL and others are not?

    @Dallas Hockley

    Leave the ideologies aside for a minute and lets try to discuss where the dynamics are today, not where they were 15 years ago.

    I’m unconvinced that the dynamics have completely changed. I think we have to look at the past to contextualize the present. I believe Linux has been a success where *BSD is fragmented has something to do with the license. I think this dynamic might come to play in other situations today.

    I also believe that GCC is as good as it is and has as many quality backends available, which creates powerful competition between chip architectures, has something to do with it being GPL’d. I know Intel, IBM, SUN, HP and AMD have all contributed to these backends and there would have been powerful temptation to lock their competitive advantages away had the GPL not been the license.

    I admit this is an extenuated hypothetical, but the anti-GPL people are doing this also in this discussion. They are saying there’s less contribution due to the GPL and I don’t agree.

  23. Dallas Hockley Says:

    @Jordan

    I do agree that understanding the past helps in understanding the present. I would actually point to leadership more than license for success though. LInus Torvalds is a very solid and respectable “benevolent dictator” and it wasn’t a GPL-led project. It was his project that he licensed under GPL. Look at the ongoing saga of RMS-supported kernel projects and how they have yet to distribute anything solidly usable in the last two decades, and I think that’s testament to the fact the license isn’t what made Linux successful. GNU Mach continues to languish, and the whole “GNU/Linux” branding was tantamount to a publicity stunt. GNU software is a huge part of Linux, but there’s no rant for “GNU/gcc” or anything of the sort. The license just is. GNU emacs was a popular name when many different emacs were in the popular landscape.

    I also need to point out that Intel hasn’t put the best things into GCC. Intel has optimizing compilers and optimized libraries that are *not* part of the gcc and run better than optimized gcc code on some of their architectures. Sun tried to do that but largely gcc outran them on SPARC. I think the point I would raise is enlightened self-interest. Those companies want software on their machines, and leveraging the GNU suite gets a lot more software on them than a commercial compiler and development suite (ask Sun for the facts on that one) as well as saves a whole pile of work on their part. But the real secret sauce for the extreme high-end is still reserved in commercial tools by some (not all) of those companies last time I checked. GCC is a hard compiler to tailor to a specific architecture mainly because it is geared to create very good code for all architectures it supports, not perfect code for a single instruction set.

  24. John C. Welch Says:

    Did you only read my first line above? I pretty much conceded that there were new compilation tools that might challenge GCC, but that we wouldn’t be where we are today without GCC. There’s really little denying that.

    That’s just a BIT of an exaageration, and by a bit, I mean a HUGE one. You may want to remember that there is a world outside of *nix, and they made, make, and are making money sans GCC. Seriously, the narrow, shallow, completely ignorant of computing history outside of what Stallman tells you view that the GPL fans have is appalling.

    I’m unconvinced that the dynamics have completely changed. I think we have to look at the past to contextualize the present. I believe Linux has been a success where *BSD is fragmented has something to do with the license. I think this dynamic might come to play in other situations today.

    And a perfect example of what I mean. The issue with BSD’s slow uptake has absolutely nothing to do with the license, just as Linux’s fast uptake has nothing to do with the license. Right after BSD came out, they were sued by AT&T, and that lawsuit, which of course, dragged on for two years. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bsd:

    BSDi soon found itself in legal trouble with AT&T’s Unix System Laboratories subsidiary, then the owners of the System V copyright and the Unix trademark. The USL v. BSDi lawsuit was filed in 1992 and led to an injunction on the distribution of Net/2 until the validity of USL’s copyright claims on the source could be determined.
    The lawsuit slowed development of the free-software descendants of BSD for nearly two years while their legal status was in question, and as a result systems based on the Linux kernel, which did not have such legal ambiguity, gained greater support. Although not released until 1992, development of 386BSD predated that of Linux, and Linus Torvalds has said that if 386BSD had been available at the time, he probably would not have created Linux.

    So the license had far less to do with this than the lawsuit.

    I know Intel, IBM, SUN, HP and AMD have all contributed to these backends and there would have been powerful temptation to lock their competitive advantages away had the GPL not been the license.

    No, you don’t *know* this at all. You think it, you may even feel it, but you most certainly do not know it. For you to know it would require you to have been 4-5 people working in 4-5 companies at the same time, with access to pertinent data.

    I admit this is an extenuated hypothetical, but the anti-GPL people are doing this also in this discussion. They are saying there’s less contribution due to the GPL and I don’t agree.

    Yes, but you’re pretty much attributing every advancement in computing since the creation of the GPL to the GPL and pretty much the GPL alone, and that’s ridiculous.

    No one is saying the GPL is inherently bad, but we ARE saying it is very restrictive, esp. as compared to BSD licenses, and that in a lot of ways, the GPL’s gun does restrict its use in commercial products.

  25. mark Says:

    The GPL is extremely restrictive, there is no doubt about this. The BSD licenses are more liberal.

    My biggest complain is that Stallman touts as if the GPL gives you freedom – yes it does, but it also takes away freedom because you must stick to it. You can NOT opt out to not stick to it. In this regard the GPL is much more restricted than the BSD.

    The essence of the GPL up to version 2 however is okay – you give source code away and demand from people who modify it to contribute back to the rest of the world too. That is perfectly valid.

    GPL 3 is problematic because the FSF extended it to combat corporations, which may be a valid goal but has NOTHING to do with a license. It shouldn’t be part of a license and I refuse to use it. (I do use both BSD, GPL 2 and creative commons for my projects)

    The GPL is not the only business model – sqlite for example has a much better model than the GPL ;)

    Now, to the plugin stuff, I believe the argument of the FSF is problematic. A plugin that does not change the code of the “parent” application is NOT a derivative work. A plugin can exist on its own too, being an interface to another closed source program. The interpretation of the GPL would then dictate that everything is a “derivative” work, which is bullshit.

    The GPL would make it easier if they do this instead:
    “You may not combine your work with closed source software components.”

    This would solve the whole derivative work termn easily.

  26. Jordan Henderson Says:

    @John C. Welch

    Seriously, the narrow, shallow, completely ignorant of computing history outside of what Stallman tells you view that the GPL fans have is appalling.

    And someone was complaining about the tone used by the GPL supporters in this discussion… You don’t know that this view is narrow, shallow and completely ignorant, it’s just conjecture.

    Anyway, I’ve never really heard Stallman expound on the history of computing. Maybe some stuff about how his tools are responsible for Linux, which is hard to contradict.

    So the license had far less to do with this than the lawsuit.

    Yes, the AT&T suit stunted *BSD. But that was settled in 1993. BSD still had a HUGE lead on Linux at that time in terms of tools and stability.

    Look, Linus is by no means a Wild-eyed FSF fanatic, but he says himself that using the GPL was the best thing he’d ever done. People were attracted to working on Linux, while development on *BSD was siloed into entities like BSDi/FreeBSD/OpenBSD/NetBSD. I know, I know.. conjecture… Of course, your assertion that the “license had far less to do with it than the lawsuit” is also similar conjecture.

    I know Intel, IBM, SUN, HP and AMD have all contributed to these backends and there would have been powerful temptation to lock their competitive advantages away had the GPL not been the license.

    No, you don’t *know* this at all. You think it, you may even feel it, but you most certainly do not know it. For you to know it would require you to have been 4-5 people working in 4-5 companies at the same time, with access to pertinent data.

    Maybe I should have used two sentences to establish clear context. I know those companies contributed. No doubt about that. Are you denying that in no case there would have been temptation for those companies to keep their changes secret? Someone pointed out above that Intel keeps their best compilation secrets in their own compiler, why would they release a GCC with their changes at all (except binaries) if it weren’t for the GPL. Similarly for Sun, who found they couldn’t compete with GCC on Sparc.

    Yes, but you’re pretty much attributing every advancement in computing since the creation of the GPL to the GPL and pretty much the GPL alone, and that’s ridiculous.

    I did nothing of the sort. I only pointed out a few places where the GPL appears to have been a good thing.

  27. John C. Welch Says:

    Look, Linus is by no means a Wild-eyed FSF fanatic, but he says himself that using the GPL was the best thing he’d ever done.  People were attracted to working on Linux, while development on *BSD was siloed into entities like BSDi/FreeBSD/OpenBSD/NetBSD.  I know, I know.. conjecture… Of course, your assertion that the “license had far less to do with it than the lawsuit” is also similar conjecture.

    It’s not conjecture at all. re-read the section I quoted again:

    The lawsuit slowed development of the free-software descendants of BSD for nearly two years while their legal status was in question, and as a result systems based on the Linux kernel, which did not have such legal ambiguity, gained greater support. Although not released until 1992, development of 386BSD predated that of Linux, and Linus Torvalds has said that if 386BSD had been available at the time, he probably would not have created Linux.

    From Linus’ mouth to our ears, the reason he started Linux was not because of the license, but because BSD’s availabilty due to? The lawsuit. Note that the GPL would not have prevented the lawsuit, nor would the GPL have, as you oddly seem
    to imply, the different versions of BSD. It certainly didn’t prevent the forking of EMACS/XEMACS, nor did it prevent the gcc forking that resulted in the abandonment of gcc 2.0 for the forked version.

    I think it’s pretty clear that your attempt to imply the lack of a gun in BSD as the reason for BSD not being as popular as Linux is not going to play out, as it simply doesn’t reflect the facts.

  28. Chris Says:

    # What counts as a change to the original product?

    I think your confusion stems from this inaccuracy. The GPL doesn’t care about whether you “change the original product”. The conditions of the GPL kick in when you create anything that is a *derived work* of the original product, even if it’s not the same product.

    This makes the plug-in example very clear to me: when you write a plugin, it is a derived work of the application because it requires intimate knowledge of how the original application works to function, and clearly builds upon the work present in the core of the application, which is probably doing much of the heavy lifting for it.

    (How do you know whether a work is derived? That’s defined by copyright law, not the GPL, and in general we look to see a substantial relationship between the two works, such that the latter work isn’t able to stand alone without the former work.)

    But promoters of the GPL take the position that plugins, by nature of being loaded into the same code space as other GPL code, do constitute a modification of the original, and are therefore subject to the terms of the GPL

    No, I think promoters of the GPL take the position that plugins, by nature of being a derived work of GPL code are therefore subject to the terms of the GPL. It’s entirely irrelevant whether they modify the original code or not, just whether they derive from it significantly.

    – Chris.

  29. Chris Says:

    And on to the main argument:

    Now for the most controversial point of this article, where I suggest that the GPL does more to harm collaborative development than it does to help it.

    Well, okay, but let’s try to find some evidence for this. Is FreeBSD more popular with software companies than Linux? No, not at all — it’s popular with one company, Apple, who took the FreeBSD code ten years ago and hasn’t contributed much to that “collaboration” since; FreeBSD itself is looking more and more irrelevant each release. Linux, on the other hand, has major backing from most of the large IT companies who aren’t Microsoft/Apple that I can think of. Why weren’t they scared off to FreeBSD?

    I’m all for controversial statements, but this one seems to be lacking correlation with reality.

    It’s your party, and you’re entitled to write the guest list. But take a look around the room: not as many folks as you’d hoped for? Liberally-licensed projects are booming.

    I wouldn’t claim that Apple are “at FreeBSD’s party”. I’d claim they grabbed all the valuables and left years ago. ;-)

    – Chris.

  30. John C. Welch Says:

    Well, okay, but let’s try to find some evidence for this. Is FreeBSD more popular with software companies than Linux? No, not at all — it’s popular with one company, Apple, who took the FreeBSD code ten years ago and hasn’t contributed much to that “collaboration” since; FreeBSD itself is looking more and more irrelevant each release. Linux, on the other hand, has major backing from most of the large IT companies who aren’t Microsoft/Apple that I can think of. Why weren’t they scared off to FreeBSD?

    You keep repeating the “Apple gave nothing back” mantra, as though if you say it enough times, it will be true.

    http://www.opensource.apple.com/
    http://www.opensource.apple.com/release/mac-os-x-1057/
    http://www.macosforge.org/

    keep being the fly in your ointment. You also repeat the “Linux is more popular” mantra, as though popularity is an indication of anything but…numbers. If you keep trying to use popularity as validation, then the GPL AND BSD lose, and MS/IBM closed source wins.

    So maybe you should stop there, because it’s not going to work out for you.

    I wouldn’t claim that Apple are “at FreeBSD’s party”. I’d claim they grabbed all the valuables and left years ago. ;-)

    I can claim the moon is made of green cheese, but it wouldn’t be true. YOu can claim Apple gives nothing back, but the facts simply do not support your position.

    Unless of course, you’re trying to avoid making you *real* point, which is that you only live in binary, and if Apple doesn’t GPL EVERYTHING, then they give NOTHING back. But that would be inane, right?

  31. Dallas Hockley Says:

    @John C. Welch – Thanks for those links. I knew of macosforge, but the opensource were new to me. I would say you made the point that they contribute back a great deal to just about every license under the sun and a wide range of projects. Every time they fix a bug, it gets released as your facts show.

    I think the fact that Linux is popular and FreeBSD/NetBSD/OpenBSD aren’t as far as IBM, HP and the rest is that Linux has become a commercial venture they can get involved in, support and make money off of. The *BSD family never achieved the market penetration that the Linux distros did. I personally feel most of that was more due to drivers and easy to install distributions than license or tech or security, as various BSD flavours have exceeded Linux on various technical merits a number of times throughout the earlier lifecycle. Now I think the bulk of the coders that grok enough OS to push things forward and work for free are on Linux, and the rest are paid to work on Linux or proprietary systems. The BSD flavours are from loyalists, or people that don’t agree with some of the decisions that Raymond and Torvalds and the other core decisions makers have made. The money and bulk of the effort is going to Linux.

    I still claim the companies are operating with enlightened self-interest, not on any principled interest for Linux or the license. There is a commercial opportunity in either using, supporting, selling support, software and services on Linux or all of the above. So they support it and help move it forward. I maintain Linux got there because Linus pounded it forward guiding the masses and getting a lot of hardware working with it via a solid driver model and getting lots of drivers written for it.

  32. Jordan Henderson Says:

    @John C. Welch

    From Linus’ mouth to our ears, the reason he started Linux was not because of the license, but because BSD’s availabilty due to? The lawsuit.

    Linus’ statement only shows that had the lawsuit not been there, Linux probably wouldn’t have existed at all as he would have used BSD. That doesn’t explain how Linux took off after 1993 (when the lawsuit had been settled) vs. BSD. As I said, Linux was nowhere in 1993, and way behind BSD in functionality.

    People didn’t want to collaborate in the BSD source base for some reason even after the lawsuit had been settled vs. Linux which had a vibrant diverse community. I’d suggest it’s because of the license. Why do you think Linux was so much more popular in the years 1993-2001 vs. BSD? What impact did the lawsuit have after 1993?

    I think that same dynamic sometimes applies today, for some projects, others it doesn’t.

    Admittedly, things have changed now. BSD in the form of OSX may be more popular than Linux and it might well be due to the license.

  33. John C. Welch Says:

    Linus’ statement only shows that had the lawsuit not been there, Linux probably wouldn’t have existed at all as he would have used BSD. That doesn’t explain how Linux took off after 1993 (when the lawsuit had been settled) vs. BSD. As I said, Linux was nowhere in 1993, and way behind BSD in functionality.

    Read the history of the lawsuit again. It was settled in 1994. As to why Linus continued, who knows. Maybe he had realized that he had some interesting ideas on things that weren’t the way *BSD did it, and wanted to see it through. I’m glad he did. By actually getting a usable kernel out there, something Stallman and the FSF have yet to do, he helped make the OS market far more vibrant and interesting. The fact that every time you say “Linux” without the inane addition of “GNU” on the front, Stallman cries a little is just an added bonus.

    People didn’t want to collaborate in the BSD source base for some reason even after the lawsuit had been settled vs. Linux which had a vibrant diverse community. I’d suggest it’s because of the license. Why do you think Linux was so much more popular in the years 1993-2001 vs. BSD? What impact did the lawsuit have after 1993?

    Again, you keep saying this like BSD sat alone in a corner by the punchbowl wishing she was as popular as the Linux girl. This is of course not true. While *BSD didn’t have the PR and public eye that Linux did, it was hardly sitting alone and unused. Prior to being bought by MS, and for some years after, Hotmail ran on BSD, as did NeXTSTEP/OpenStep. That’s not small. Nor are other people using BSD who aren’t Apple, such as Ironport, Juniper, Nokia, Debian, Gentoo,

    Again, both the idea that the reason BSD failed was a lack of GPL and that a lack of GPL is why BSD is somehow languishing are demonstrably and factually *false*. The BSD license has not, is not, and I doubt will ever be a barrier to participation for anyone but those who think that the GPL is the only acceptable license.

  34. Cátia Kitahara Says:

    I’m sorry to intrude into your discussion and for my not so good English, but I think your discussion is narrowed by a lack of information on how the GPL has become popular outside your country. There’s a huge movement for it in my country, Brazil. Just last week we had the 10th International Free Software Forum, in Porto Alegre, which had the presence of our President, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. (As you may know, Brazil is one of the biggest democracies in the world, with many problems, but still a democracy).

    … the GPL does more to harm collaborative development than it does to help it.

    The adoption of the GPL by our Government has been a real revolution that has nothing to do with political points of views, left or right. From financial Institutions, like our National Bank (Banco do Brasil) to educational institutions, such as primary schools and Universities, and to our army, in all areas the free software is being adopted. Not only it’s been adopted, it’s being developped by a growing community inside and outside the government, who is sharing its knowledge, so more and more people and institutions can use it and are getting benefits from it. In this repository you may see a list of some of the free software that’s being developped (in portuguese) available for download: http://www.softwarepublico.gov.br/pt/ListaSoftwares

    John C. Welch said above:

    To 90% of your users, the license doesn’t matter, only the features, and the price.

    The Brazilian Government is adopting the free software as a strategy of social inclusion as well as a democracy tool, where knowledge isn’t a property of a few, but it’s shared among millions. But above all, the adoption of free software also means public money is being saved. And in a poor country where corruption has drained our economy, that’s a huge thing. A recent research among 135 institutions which adopted free software pointed that our government saved 372 million reais (approximately 186 million dollars) in the last year.

    I hope this will bring a different perspective to your debate.

  35. Matt Says:

    Your biggest fallacy is “the liberal-license communities are attractive to developers from all 3 camps.”

    I’m a GPL-friendly developer that is hesitant to be involved with a non-GPL project the same way your “passion for it takes a bit of a dive” when coming into contact with the GPL.

    You could also make a fairly good argument that the majority of Open Source developers are GPL-friendly simply because the vast majority of Open Source projects are licensed under the GPL.

    I wrote more about all of this on my blog:

    http://ma.tt/2009/07/not-lonely-at-all/

  36. Chris Says:

    You keep repeating the “Apple gave nothing back” mantra, as though if you say it enough times, it will be true.

    I’ve only said it once, since this is my first reply that mentions Apple, but okay. Do you have evidence that contradicts the assertion that Apple hasn’t helped FreeBSD? FreeBSD is obviously doing very badly lately, yet Apple is doing very well compared to its competitors.

    Unless of course, you’re trying to avoid making you *real* point, which is that you only live in binary, and if Apple doesn’t GPL EVERYTHING, then they give NOTHING back. But that would be inane, right?

    I don’t live in binary. If Apple gave plenty back to FreeBSD, shouldn’t FreeBSD be in a better position than when Apple took code from it, rather than a worse one? Shouldn’t, to return to the thrust of the argument we’re having, FreeBSD be prospering in the bloom of collaboration, rather than left for dead? Maybe, in fact, the things Apple has given back aren’t really very related to or important to FreeBSD at all?

    – Chris.

  37. Dallas Hockley Says:

    @Cátia Kitahara – THANK YOU for your perspective. I remember Sun having a great launch down in Brazil a few years back. The idea of the government and public institutions using the GPL makes a great deal of sense. It is fully funded, and ensures the public knowledge is available to everyone as they all paid for it. “enforced donations” through taxes if you will.

    I don’t think that makes it more or less valid from a business point of view, but the use of it in public organizations is a very useful addition to the discussion. The downside is that the code can’t be used in a business to build the economy of Brazil unless the government allows dual-licensing. Does Brazil allow a proprietary license of the software as well for companies to use in commercial products? I think such a dual-license would be a great basis for innovation and a flurry of new startups. Everyone starts with a good platform of software and can build whole new industries upon it! And if the core is still GPL, and evolving, more and more companies can enter as time progresses, but the existing companies could have some “secret sauce” that would differentiate them and give some people some good work and jobs!

  38. Chris Says:

    Hi Cátia,

    Thanks for your post! The adoption of free software by companies that don’t want to be wholly-dependent on American corporations for their IT infrastructure seems a very important issue for growing those countries’ economies and their ability to manage their own technology needs. It’s great that President Lula showed up at the conference, I can’t imagine Barack Obama coming to a free software conference in the US. ;-)

    – Chris.

  39. John C. Welch Says:

    I’ve only said it once, since this is my first reply that mentions Apple, but okay. Do you have evidence that contradicts the assertion that Apple hasn’t helped FreeBSD? FreeBSD is obviously doing very badly lately, yet Apple is doing very well compared to its competitors.

    What ARE you basing this on? What, if it’s not as popular as you think it should be, it’s doing badly? Or is it that you don’t really know much about BSD at all, and therefore, use “I haven’t heard much about it, it must be in the tank” as your basis? You’re starting to get all over the place here, yet it’s obvious that you know little to nothing about the BSD community except that:

    1) It’s not based on the GPL and only the GPL
    2) It’s not as popular as Linux.

    *Neither* of those lead, on anything even vaguely resembling a logical level, to the conclusion that BSD is in the tank, or “doing badly”. Considering that a rather large chunk of Mac OS X is based on FreeBSD, and that as i’ve shown, Apple is contributing back to the community, even though there is no gun at their head, you keep moving your goalposts so you can satisfy your position that because BSD is not based on the GPL, it’s in the tank, and if it was based on the GPL, it would not be.

    I’ve shown, repeatedly that contrary to what you and others evidently want to believe, BSD is not in the tank, that using a license without a built-in threat is not a death knell to a community, and that Apple is actually contributing back to the community, even without a threat.

    Now, because BSD isn’t as POPULAR as Linux, it’s in the tank? Goalposts, they keep moving, but okay, since it’s all about POPULARITY now. If we SOLELY go by popularity, Windows wins, and obviously the GPL or any open source license is the death knell for a project.

    A silly assertion, to be sure, but if we’re now using popularity as our sole criteria for success, that’s the result.

    I don’t live in binary. If Apple gave plenty back to FreeBSD, shouldn’t FreeBSD be in a better position than when Apple took code from it, rather than a worse one?

    Prove this assertion with something besides popularity compared to Linux.

    Shouldn’t, to return to the thrust of the argument we’re having, FreeBSD be prospering in the bloom of collaboration, rather than left for dead? Maybe, in fact, the things Apple has given back aren’t really very related to or important to FreeBSD at all?

    Or maybe you are unwilling to admit that the GPL is not the only way to achieve success in FOSS. If you want to continue stating this, then prove it with something resembling actual data.

    Barring that, I’m just seeing blind advocacy for the GPL as the only valid license for FOSS, and a refusal to acknowledge multiple right ways of doing things regardless of data.

  40. Jordan Henderson Says:

    @John C. Welch

    From what I read, the lawsuit was settled in 1993:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USL_v._BSDi

    Anyway, this discussion isn’t useful. You keep trying to put words in my mouth:

    Again, you keep saying this like BSD sat alone in a corner by the punchbowl wishing she was as popular as the Linux girl.

    I never said anything like this. I said Linux grew much faster and I attributed it to the license. If you want to attribute it to a lawsuit settled in 1993, fine. Noone will ever know.

    You also tend to argue by assertion, like:

    Again, both the idea that the reason BSD failed was a lack of GPL and that a lack of GPL is why BSD is somehow languishing are demonstrably and factually *false*.

    You’ve not demonstrated this to me and I doubt that your “facts” would stand up in any kind of court or scientific enquiry, which is where facts are evaluated.

    I never advocated a single license to rule them all. I said that the GPL is an important part of the ecosystem and you seem to disagree, although it’s hard to tell with all your ranting.

  41. Chris Says:

    @John C. Welch:

    Now, because BSD isn’t as POPULAR as Linux, it’s in the tank? Goalposts, they keep moving, but okay, since it’s all about POPULARITY now.

    Actually, I think popularity is a reasonable metric to use, given that the argument we’re having involves comparing the amount of collaboration happening over each software project. What is “collaboration”, other than having many disparate companies using and contributing to your source code? Should we compare the number of patches from outside companies to each? I think we both know that Linux comes up winning in every metric. If the amount of collaboration happening is something you’re indifferent to, are you perhaps answering a different question than the one Daniel’s post has raised?

    I think the amount of collaboration from different groups is especially important when the claim is that business will be turned away from software with a particular license, which is demonstrably untrue in this case.

    – Chris.

  42. John C. Welch Says:

    Actually, I think popularity is a reasonable metric to use, given that the argument we’re having involves comparing the amount of collaboration happening over each software project. What is “collaboration”, other than having many disparate companies using and contributing to your source code? Should we compare the number of patches from outside companies to each? I think we both know that Linux comes up winning in every metric. If the amount of collaboration happening is something you’re indifferent to, are you perhaps answering a different question than the one Daniel’s post has raised?

    If popularity is your major metric then based on every metric, historical, user base, third party contributors, all of them, closed source, non-free software wins.

    Maybe you don’t want to use popularity as your major criteria for sucess. You also may wish to not indulge in zero-sum. It is easily and entirely possible for a community to be alive, thriving, and healthy without being the biggest or being in lockstep with your political views. BSD has, outside of Mac OS X never been a particularly user-oriented OS. So, it doesn’t directly compete with windows, nor is it considered “sexy” by most. So it is in some ways a smaller community, in other was a larger community.

    However, the assertion that because it doesn’t subscribe to a specific political platform, doesn’t put a gun at the community’s head, or is seen as being as popular as Linux means that it is a dying or even stagnant community is, in every way possible, ludicrous.

    It further shows that the GPL faction is only interested in software and software development peripherally to the political stances it pushes.

  43. Pedro Figueroa Says:

    Two things I’ve not seen yet in this discussion are an explanation of the purpose of the licenses and background information as to the purpose’s why.
    BSD, MIT, etc, (university) type licenses were issued at universities. Their purpose was/is to allow alumni to take the software developed in the institution and use it to further their carriers. This in turn served as prestige enhancing promotion of the university to new students.
    So alumni would go for their $multibillion companies (SUN, SGI, etc.) while the university attracted super talented students that would repeat the cycle.
    The purpose of the university licenses has not changed and this is independently of who adopts one of them for their software. Even today, it is to provide software in exchange for prestige enhancing promotion.
    The GPL on the other hand is the product of one man who, after having developed the most advanced editor of the time, found himself without access to enhancements to it made by some third party. It’s been a long time and I don’t remember if RMS had to pay for emacs but this (and an issue with a printer driver. The manufacturer refused to give him printer specifications) marks the birth of the GPL which has as its purpose to guarantee the four freedoms. Study, use, change and distribute GPL licensed software.
    Both license types reflect the historical context in which they originated as well as the intention of their creators.
    On the argument of which is freer, it depends on whose view point we’re talking about.
    Kerberos was free to MS but their “enhancements” were not to the users or developers.
    The GNU tool chain is also free to MS and to the people they distribute it to. the software and developers are not affected in that case.
    Basically BSD, etc. software freedom can be too ephemeral whereas GPL software is free generation after generation.
    I would suggest that when you want GPL software to not be GPL, remember this business of selling emacs to RMS.

  44. What_GPL_means Says:

    to Pedro Figueroa:
    “Two things I’ve not seen yet in this discussion are an explanation of the purpose of the licenses and background information as to the purpose’s why.”

    Yes, I tried to outline the general, political context of the GNU movement in a comment buried somewhere in teh thread.
    Check the comment by “What_GPL_means” above

    It’s very characteristic that apart from sniggering no one took the issues raised there.
    It’s also very telling, that I was threatened by a ban by the author of the blog just for expressing those ideas.
    American “free speech” as understood by americans, aha.

    And to add: the two points that Brasilian etc. – non-american – authors added, that of freedom from control of their information infrastructures by US corporations and yours, on different purpose of even “open source” as reflecting positions of institutions versus a group of commoners united in their work on a project,
    are very true indeed

  45. Watts Says:

    Sort of an interesting discussion, although not entirely unpredictable.

    Nobody’s actually brought up the best argument I’d have using the GPL, though: sometimes you might actually want to restrict what people can do with your code. If you’re a company that’s decided, for whatever reason, to release a given software package as open source, maybe you don’t want your competitors to be able to take it and build something proprietary on top of it and charge money. Even if you’re a sole not-for-profit developer, you might not want that. It doesn’t strike me as too difficult to understand why, if the developer of FantasticWidget decides to give his stuff away for free, he might choose a license that makes it impossible for somebody else to repackage it as FantasticWidget Pro for $99.95.

    Granted, describing the GPL as being a good thing when you consciously want to restrict the use of your code runs counter to the whole “it’s all about freedom” line, but it strikes me as far more accurate. Restricting what people can do with your code is your prerogative as the copyright holder.

    @Chris: do you have evidence that supports the assertion that “FreeBSD is obviously doing very badly lately” or the assertion that Apple hasn’t helped FreeBSD (it’s not clear what kind of “help” you mean, since it’s not clear in what sense you think FreeBSD is doing badly)? I’ve seen arguments that FreeBSD 5 was something of a fiasco and that the project lost a lot of momentum around that time, but even if that’s true, it’s hard to see what it has to do with Apple or anyone else but the FreeBSD core team.

  46. Scott Wilson Says:

    A few points:

    I find the ‘GPL gun’ analogy unhelpful, and actually demeaning to the parties involved, who are after all free agents entering into a voluntary agreement. To be blunt, if you feel using GPL’d software points a gun at your head, well, you’re the one who put it there. The GPL has no power to force people into agreements.

    I work in academia, and I think in that context the GPL is very useful, and is in keeping with traditional (i.e. non-corporate) academic ideas and values about the exchange of knowledge, and good-faith reciprocal relationships. I don’t think it’s the best license for every situation. Social benefit and monetary profit are sometimes overlapping and sometimes conflicting goals.

    It is obvious that in terms of maximising the potential for monetization by individuals or corporations the GPL is not the least restrictive license. However most of the discussion here of how it limits this has been in terms of the software business (probably indicative of the audience!). In terms of making money through software *use*, the GPL is a very liberal license, and provides great potential for profit and economic benefit. The fact that you can extend and use the software in house without releasing your improvements is fantastic in this respect.

    I’d like to think that we can agree that simply using the GPL does not mean you agree with everything Stallman and the FSF says. To many people it’s really just a software license, and they’re interested in what that does for them and their project, not anybody’s political agenda. The slow uptake of v3 demonstrates this I think, as many people (e.g. Torvalds) feel it does go too far in a political direction. There is nuance here!

    Unfortunately, it seems it’s impossible to use the GPL (v2) without being accused of being part of the ‘GPL Faction’. For this reason I’d like to propose a fork: the GNG License. GNG is short for ‘GNG’s not the GPL’. In function it’s exactly like the v2 but has no association with Stallman, the FSF, or any confusing rhetoric about freedom. Sound good?

  47. John C. Welch Says:

    Nobody’s actually brought up the best argument I’d have using the GPL, though: sometimes you might actually want to restrict what people can do with your code. If you’re a company that’s decided, for whatever reason, to release a given software package as open source, maybe you don’t want your competitors to be able to take it and build something proprietary on top of it and charge money. Even if you’re a sole not-for-profit developer, you might not want that. It doesn’t strike me as too difficult to understand why, if the developer of FantasticWidget decides to give his stuff away for free, he might choose a license that makes it impossible for somebody else to repackage it as FantasticWidget Pro for $99.95.

    The GPL doesn’t stop this in the least. All it says is that you have to make the source for FantasticWidgetPro available. But you can easily sell your modifications as a commercial product if you want. So it won’t stay proprietary for long.

  48. John C. Welch Says:

    I’d like to think that we can agree that simply using the GPL does not mean you agree with everything Stallman and the FSF says. To many people it’s really just a software license, and they’re interested in what that does for them and their project, not anybody’s political agenda. The slow uptake of v3 demonstrates this I think, as many people (e.g. Torvalds) feel it does go too far in a political direction. There is nuance here!

    I’d like to think that too, however, when you start any discussion that posits the idea that there are disadvantages to the GPL on any level, you soon see that the percentage of pragmatists in the GPL world are really, really small. This discussion is a (small) example of this.

    Unfortunately, it seems it’s impossible to use the GPL (v2) without being accused of being part of the ‘GPL Faction’. For this reason I’d like to propose a fork: the GNG License. GNG is short for ‘GNG’s not the GPL’. In function it’s exactly like the v2 but has no association with Stallman, the FSF, or any confusing rhetoric about freedom. Sound good?

    Well, to be blunt, if you use the GPL, that is an indication that you do support at least some of the political aims of the FSF et al. It’s unavoidable, because Stallman and the FSF have made the GPL far more political than pragmatic.

    That’s a shame, because while yes, the GPL is a gun at your head, (While things like LLVM/clang are being done because the gcc team tends to be slow to respond on certain compiler issues, it’s also a way to create an alternate tool chain that is truly free of any form of encumbrance. There’s been a slow movement towards rewriting GPL code under an actually free, as opposed to politically free license), there are times when that gun is handy.

    While I disagree with the central GPL paranoia (NO ONE WILL CONTRIBUTE OR KEEP CODE OPEN SOURCE IF YOU DON’T FORCE THEM TO!!!!), the effectiveness of the GPL, especially with regard to Linux, is undeniable. But I think, as some others have pointed out too, that a lot of companies are seeing the advantage in contributing and being a helpful part of the FOSS community for a pragmatic reason:

    It makes your life easier in the end, and helps you make money.

    A quick example: Early on in OS X’s history, up to 10.1, Apple didn’t use CUPS. Instead, they tried to implement their own print architecture, “Tioga”. It was okay I guess, but they realized that it was kind of stupid to do this when there was a perfectly good printer architecture out there already, and face it, there’s nothing earth-shattering about printing. It’s kind of a well-understood process. No matter how hard you try, the chances of doing anything new with printing approach zero.

    Apple used CUPS, made some contributions to it, most notably DNS-SD, so it would work with Bonjour, and eventually hired the developer and bought the dev’s company. They’re still making CUPS available under a split “Apple Fork”/GPL license from what I’ve read, so the people who use CUPS who aren’t Apple still can.

    Apple didn’t do *any* of this because of any pie-eyed optimism, or political cause. They did it purely out of pragmatism. CUPS solved a problem for them better and faster than they were going to invent it on their own, and they keep it GPL’d because that will help them, and the rest of the CUPS community continue to solve problems better in the future.

    IBM realized this…well in some ways ages ago, in other ways not so much. Sun always got it, even MS is getting it, (although because of the lawsuits, they are in a VERY weird place. For example, from what I’ve heard, MS Devs are not allowed to even LOOK at non-MS source for anything related to MS projects. Straaaaaange Brew.)

    I think this will continue and expand, with or without the GPL, (and if more projects go GPL 3, the “without” will accelerate), but not because there’s any political advantage. It will continue to happen because it makes good business sense for the companies involved.

  49. Scott Wilson Says:

    I’d like to think that too, however, when you start any discussion that posits the idea that there are disadvantages to the GPL on any level, you soon see that the percentage of pragmatists in the GPL world are really, really small. This discussion is a (small) example of this.

    I disagree. IME, most developers using the GPL are pretty pragmatic, and really just want to exert some control over how their intellectual property is used, and to potentially benefit from that use. That’s anecdotal, but I’ll pit my anecdotal against yours any day.

    I suspect that the percentage of vocal GPL pragmatists is small compared to vocal GPL evangelists, but that’s almost by definition.

    Well, to be blunt, if you use the GPL, that is an indication that you do support at least some of the political aims of the FSF et al

    Okay, which ones?

  50. Chris Says:

    @John C. Welch:

    FreeBSD is obviously doing very badly lately, yet Apple is doing very well compared to its competitors.

    What ARE you basing this on? What, if it’s not as popular as you think it should be, it’s doing badly? Or is it that you don’t really know much about BSD at all, and therefore, use “I haven’t heard much about it, it must be in the tank” as your basis? You’re starting to get all over the place here, yet it’s obvious that you know little to nothing about the BSD community except that:

    It’s true, I thought that FreeBSD’s decline was going to be accepted as known fact. Here, then, are some simple metrics:

    * the number of CVS commits (as measured by the cvs-all list) in the first six months of 2004 averaged 5041 (min 4476, max 5907).
    * the number of CVS commits in the first six months of 2009 averaged 2357 (min 1924, max 2759).

    If anyone would care to propose another way to measure contributions to FreeBSD code, I’m happy to try to look at that.

    So, we keep coming back to the main argument: if it’s true that the GPL forces companies to run away, and that BSD license more strongly suggests that a project’s going to prosper, why is the available evidence showing a GPL project with a healthy contributor base and many large companies invested in its success, and a BSD project with less than half of the “collaboration” it had five years ago?

    – Chris.

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