Has the GPL out-lived its usefulness?

There have always been two schools of intellectual property thought in free software/open-source circles, and boy have they had their flame wars over the years. Things have been calm lately, but recently, Eric S. Raymond, co-founder of the OSI (Open Source Initiative), has thrown a match on the gasoline again in an essay entitled, The Economic Case Against the GPL.

Raymond argues that open source is a more "efficient system of software production." Raymond is using the term "efficiency' here in the precise sense economists use it. Of two systems of production, the more efficient is the one which produces more units of output for a given input of factors of production." As Black Duck Software recently revealed in its study that showed that open-source software is worth hundreds of billions of dollars, the facts are on Raymond's side.

But, Raymond doesn't stop there. He believes that the GPL causes FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) and that, in turn, this "slows down open-source adoption."

Really? The GPL is the most important of the open-source licenses. Linux is under the GPLv2 and Matt Asay, well-known open-source blogger and VP of business development for Alfresco, an open-source CMS (content management system) company, states that "the GPL powers as much as 77% of all SourceForge projects."

What Raymond and Asay end up arguing is that there are better, more 'efficient' licenses than the GPL and that it's high-time we start using them. Asay singles out the Apache license as being better than GPL for business purposes. Apache gives users more rights to use the covered software in any way they see fit. So, for example, if you write a program under Apache you don't have to give the end-users the source code nor do you have to send any changes you make to the code to the upstream developer.

Of course, Richard M. Stallman, creator of the GPL (GNU General Public License), sees this issue in a different light. To Stallman, free sofrware isn't about efficieny, it's about freedom.

In a recent interview, Stallman said, free software "means you have the four essential freedoms: (1) to run the program as you wish, (2) to study the source code, and change it to make the program do what you wish, (3) to redistribute exact copies, and (4) to distribute copies of your modified versions. With these four freedoms, the users control the software, both individually and collectively, so it is free software. Otherwise, the program is proprietary software, which means it operates as an instrument to give the developer power over the users. "Apache, from where Stallman sits, is compatible with GPLv3, but not GPLv2.

So what does all this mean for you? In 2009, I'm not sure it means much of anything. I don't see much GPL FUD anymore. Oh, people still get endlessly confused about what you can and can't do under GPL in casual conversation, but if you're in business you can get expert, informed legal advice these days without having to search high and low for it. Companies like Black Duck and Palamida are more than ready to help you figure out how to fit part A under the GPL and part B, under Apache or the MPL (Mozilla Public License), into your own program.

I think the GPL's track record speaks for itself. The other open-source licenses have their place, but while some developers may chafe under some GPL restrictions, GPL has proven to be quite 'efficient' for the great majority of developers no matter whether they call their code open source or free software.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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