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Whither the GPL? Why we don’t need it anymore

During a discussion yesterday on Twitter about the implications of license choices for clouds, I said, “I think GPL played a larger mission when people weren’t educated about open source.” This got so much interest that I wanted to expand on it here.

 The GPL enforced good behavior, accompanied by bureaucracy

In the early days of the GPL and copyleft software, it played an important role in forcibly training companies how free/open-source development worked. First, they had no (legal) choice but to comply with the terms of the license. This meant that, like it or not, they had to use at least a somewhat open development model. Even throwing code over the wall meant the code was there for others to pick up and use. If enough people did so, it could result in a fork — unless your company was out there in the community, too, rather than hiding behind a wall.

Over time, more and more tech companies were forced to learn about the merits of transparent, community-based software development as they used, incorporated, and complied with the requirements of GPL software. At least in the tech world, the benefits are fairly well understood at this point. Even companies who aren’t doing anything with open source still want to bring in the techniques pioneered by its distributed development models, which I spent the past 10 years using in Gentoo Linux.

But it’s the compliance where things get frustrating, as my colleague Stephen mentioned yesterday. Dealing with GPL compliance is a major effort for companies, one they’d rather not worry about from both time and legal perspectives.

Not to mention that copyleft licenses make it much harder to build proprietary products. An exceedingly popular business model is opening the infrastructure while building a closed layer on top as a product, often some sort of administration or management interface in the case of cloud.

Enter permissive licenses.

Apache rose as GPL-mandated “education” was no longer required

I won’t bother rehashing the broader evidence on the decline of the GPL and rise of the Apache license because Stephen’s already talked about it. What’s interesting is who is choosing the Apache license — projects like Hadoop, the Cassandra NoSQL database, and most recently Citrix’s CloudStack. That’s why I said a few days ago that the Apache Software Foundation is beginning to become the center of the open cloud ecosystem. The uptake of the Apache license and ASF governance, particularly among cloud providers and infrastructure software, has been notable over the past few years.

Many years ago, those who successfully used the Apache license tended to be highly technical people immersed in the open-source world. For example, look at the Apache web server. It used the Apache license way back when, but it worked out great because OSS-knowledgeable sysadmins wrote it — people who understood the benefits of truly open-source development.

But today, open-source software is much more familiar, and tech companies generally understand how the model works, if not always when to open their own software. So the initial mission served by the GPL of force-feeding open-source development isn’t as necessary as it once was, at least among educated tech companies.

I suspect the lifecycle has now shifted. Although tech companies get it, the next step will be non-tech companies such as retailers, investment banks, etc. Maybe the GPL is the right choice for them as a teaching tool, followed in a few years by a migration toward permissively licensed software once the benefits are understood.

Disclaimer: None of the companies mentioned are current RedMonk clients.

by-sa

Categories: cloud, licensing, nosql.

  • Richard Nicholson

    I’d actually argue that Apache style OSS licensing has had quite a destructive effective on the software eco-system over the last decade – driving commercial value out of the industry. GPL avoided this by stopping the parasitic behaviours that one observers w.r.t. other OSS license models. This is I believe why GPL is unpopular – i.e. you cannot build a commercial offering based on other peoples hard work. 

    Just my opinion ;)

    • Pete Molina

      i tend to agree with what your saying.. however..   the GPL does not keep you from creating a commercial product from free (in the stallman sence of the word) software…  it only requires you to supply the source code for it …    i mean.. look at Red Hat….  they offer a commercial product but still supply the source..   thats why we have CentOS and the other derivatives …    teh GPL is unpopular in my opinion because you just can’t take the source code and use it without giving back..    

      i find those that argue against the GPL are those that want to use something and not have to bother giving back..  or worry about it as the article puts it..    you don’t have to look too far to find companies that use FOSS and give back ONLY because they have to..  take the GPL requirement away and you can bet they will stop..    as Andres stated above..   “profit is king”…..    even if companies have learned what the advantages of opensource are….  the minute it conflicts with the bottom line..  what do you think will happen..  

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Dent/100001562712889 Arthur Dent

        >it only requires you to supply the source code for it … And thats ONLY if you are distributing the software,..  if its used in house then you can do WTF you want with the code with no giving back.

  • Andres Cimmarusti

    I feel what you are saying is similar to this statement: 
    companies no longer need regulations forcing them to do the right thing, instead of the most profitable thing. 

    GPL, in a similar fashion to market regulations, put strong regulations of software, so that it keeps benefiting everyone, even if it becomes a little less profitable and inconvenient for a company. 
    With other, more liberal, licenses you are appealing to the morals of the companies… to contribute back, and some of them do, but lets be honest here. In capitalism, profits are king so why bother giving back…

    • http://redmonk.com/dberkholz Donnie Berkholz

      Rather, what I am saying is that the most profitable action is unintuitive, in that it’s being a good open-source citizen (Tragedy of the Commons etc). Companies needed the GPL to force them into it until they realized it was truly beneficial.

      • KevinPhair

        Maybe you need to look around you at the current banking crisis to see what the results are of removing restrictions from an industry because it’s assumed everybody knows well enough not to do certain things.

  • curtis veit

    I just have two comments.
    1. If companies and developers all end up following a process that is effectively the same as would be required by the GPL then does it hurt to continue licensing the result under the GPL?
    2. You seem to have led a sheltered life. (Perhaps your estimate of the continued need for the GPL is a bit lower than reality would indicate.)

    You seem to concur when you say, ” the most profitable action is unintuitive, in that it’s being a good
    open-source citizen (Tragedy of the Commons etc). Companies needed the
    GPL to force them into it until they realized it was truly beneficial.”

    This indicates to me that though some companies come to that understanding, the GPL is still needed for those that are not at the same level of enlightenment.

    Thanks for a thought provoking article.

  • Wendell Anderson

    The writer of this article demonstrated some very serious human flaw s.

    One is naivete, is thinking that companies, or individuals or governments will do right by Free//Open Source Software (FOSS) after having been educated in the past of it’s merits.

    The other is that most companies, business people, even governments are greedy and cynical by nature, and thus will always seek to undermine any group beneficial effort, particularly when that effort can be exploited to maximum financial gain by, and the creators of the benefit FOSS Software  are discarded because their efforts are not protected by GPL and the like.

  • http://stop.zona-m.net Marco Fioretti

    compare

    ” I think GPL played a larger mission when people weren’t educated about open source”

    with”So the initial mission served by the GPL… isn’t as necessary as it once was, at least
    among educated tech companies”people != employees of educated tech companies. The sooner FOSS advocates realize this, the better for FOSS

  • Julius Schwartzenberg

    It seems the author is completely clueless about the goals of the GPL and the free software movement. Especially when mentioning that the GPL makes it harder to create proprietary products.
    Maybe the author himself has different goals, but those are completely unclear and not even clearly mentioned. He just writes the benefits are clearly understood when it comes to GPL software.

    Right now, the article does not make sense at all to me. It seems to have been written from a very specific perspective, perhaps that of a user who deals a lot with “cloud services”, but this viewpoint is not explained at all.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Dent/100001562712889 Arthur Dent

    Why ‘we’ dont need?
    Who is this we you seem to talk about?
    There is no community but rather myriads of communities.

    So let’s rephrase that ‘we’ with a more a propos “I dont need”…

    I would call the author clueless about the GPL, its goals and so on but I think when the medicinal marijuana wears off, he’ll be embarassed enough as it is.

  • purplelibraryguy

    Your argument seems internally contradictory.  On one hand, you say the GPL isn’t necessary because relevant companies have learned that the best way to do business is to be good open-source citizens–in effect, that they will act pretty much as if the GPL were there, even if it isn’t, so it’s OK.
    On the other hand, you’d prefer if the GPL went away because “Dealing with GPL compliance is a major effort for companies, one
    they’d rather not worry about from both time and legal perspectives.
    Not to mention that copyleft licenses make it much harder to build
    proprietary products. An exceedingly popular business model is opening
    the infrastructure while building a closed layer on top as a product,
    often some sort of administration or management interface in the case of
    cloud.”

    So . . . the corporations don’t actually want to act as if the GPL were there, they want to do something different.  They want to not bother making source available (after all, that’s the only thing GPL compliance requires) and they want to make closed derived works, “secret sauce”.  They don’t want to be good open-source citizens at all.

    So the argument is, the GPL is unnecessary because the corporations do the right thing even without it, and it should go away so they won’t have to do the right thing.

    Another problem here is, the basic point of view seems to be that the only entities in existence are corporations whose business is selling software.  As others have pointed out here, not only are there many other interests in the world, but the GPL is explicitly intended mainly to serve other interests–particularly those of the users of software.

  • ap

    I agree with you when you talk about the GPL educational role, but I disagree on the conclusions.

    You claim “copyleft licenses make it much harder to build proprietary products”. This is exactly what they should do, for a simple reason. Many of the contributors to open-source projects are not those who are going to make money from the proprietary version of the same projects. In this sense, copyleft licenses are much more fair and transparent than permissive licenses.

  • Fiery_Spirited

    So…by your argument the companies find GPL compliance (that is publish the source code) a major effort and without that pesky GPL they would still publish the source code since they understand the value of being a good citizen.

    Let me tell you a big secret…if they anyway are going publish the source code since they are a good citizen then the cost for GPL compliance is zero.

    There are some areas when permissive licenses “works”. The apache web server being a prime example. This is a product is close to a perfect fit for its mission and should in most senses be considered a very mature product. It raises little wonder that the brand name is so strong that it gets very difficult to do grab of the code and steal the business. The questions is…has this product received this point because it uses a permissive license or is since it matured before it became popular?

  • mhunter86

    Most people are educated that shoplifting is a crime, so we don’t need a law against it anymore.  Really?  

    This “drumhead” against the GPL has been going on since it’s creation.  It’s just a cynical propaganda war to brainwash.  Next we’ll be hearing we don’t need banking regulations.  Oops, we all know how that has been working out.

    We hear this incessant whining because of greed.  People want to get something for nothing and then not give anything back.  Didn’t your mother teach you to share?

    Those against the GPL continually come up with volumes of convoluted reasons about why it isn’t needed, why it shouldn’t be used, why other licenses are better — as Shakespeare wrote:  “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”.  

    The GPL endures because it’s concepts are simple and elegant.  It’s not confusing, it’s not hard.  When you look into your heart of hearts, you know it to be true.

  • Michael Collins

    I suppose I should not be surprised at the absolute-ism shown by many of the commenters here. This is the Internet, after all. ;)

    IMHO Donnie is making a valid point about the GPL: It isn’t as necessary as it once was, especially among the tech-savvy businesses of the world. Commenters here have drawn silly conclusions and analogies:

    — “So the argument is, the GPL is unnecessary because the corporations do
    the right thing even without it, and it should go away so they won’t
    have to do the right thing.” (purplelibraryguy)

    — “Most people are educated that shoplifting is a crime, so we don’t need a law against it anymore.” (mhunter86)

    Donnie isn’t saying, “There is no longer any value at in the GPL.” He’s saying, in effect, “The GPL has served us (humanity, not just the tech community) well by forcing businesses who use GPL software to learn the value of sharing. A *lot* of educating has been done in the past 2 decades, and now the ‘educated’ businesses – having learned the value of truly sharing and being involved in ‘the open way’ – can choose from among many different OSS licensing schemes. In other words: the landscape has changed and improved and one size no longer fits all.”

    For those who love the GPL I’d say this: you’re safe! The GPL isn’t going anywhere and there will always be OSS projects whose best license choice is copyleft. That being said, many businesses are eschewing the GPL in favor of, not proprietary software, but rather open source software with a different set of freedoms. Furthermore, I’m seeing more cases where certain types of software are best licensed under the LGPL or some other “permissive” license. A classic example is libcurl. You can include libcurl in virtually any project, be it free, open, libre, or commercial/proprietary.

    I’d argue that non-copyleft licenses have another value: they let people “give back” because they want to, not because they are forced to do so. When you run a project and people “give back” because of the carrot and not the stick then you’ve got a community of “real open sourcers.” When people “give back” when they just as easily could have closed their source and gone proprietary then you’ve made contact with the kind of people with whom it is a pleasure to do business. I know, I know: not all contributors to GPL’d projects do so out of fear. Indeed, GPL adoption was catalyzed by those who felt that “giving back” was the right thing to do. But sometimes you just don’t know. Look at what PJ just wrote about Microsoft today. In a newspick titled “Kernel Comment: Taking a partial view” it was mentioned that MS was 21st on the list of code changes between Linux 2.6.36 and 3.2. In classic style, notice what she said:
    “[PJ: Plus they donated, as I understand it, because they had to, thanks
    to the GPL. It was brought to their attention, and they complied. It
    wasn’t like Microsoft suddenly *wanted* to donate.]”

    MS had to comply with the GPL terms, which is fine. I’ll let you decide for yourself whether or not they *wanted* to do so. The point is, when people are not forced to give back, but they do so anyway, then that is also a good thing. In fact, it’s a great thing. I see it all the time in the project with which I am associated. (www.freeswitch.org)

    Sorry for the long-winded post, but I felt it was important to point out that less extreme interpretations of Donnie’s post here are more productive most of what I’ve read in the comments.

    Donnie – nice post. Keep up the good work.

    -MC

  • http://cathcam.wordpress.com/ Mark Cathcart

    I also followed up with a much longer follow-up here:  http://cathcam.wordpress.com/?p=839/trackback/ in an entry called “Time for a data freedom license” which is where I was hoping you’d go with this Donnie.

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