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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.


Categories: cloud, licensing, nosql.