[LINK] GPL .. good or bad?
stephen at melbpc.org.au
stephen at melbpc.org.au
Thu Apr 30 16:15:22 AEST 2009
GPL: why Eric Raymond is wrong
by Sam Varghese, Thursday, 30 April 2009
Twelve years ago, Bruce Perens, who was leader of the Debian GNU/Linux
project, drafted the Debian free software guidelines as part of the
project's social contract ..
Perens and Eric Raymond co-founded the Open Source Initiative (OSI),
which was meant to help in building the community and education. The OSD
was then made part of the OSI.
Open source was embraced by businesses as a development method which
could lead to profit; the prime reason why such a term was embraced was
because many people were frustrated by the inability to sell what was
considered superior software.
Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, and
creator of the General Public Licence, used the term free software to
push his belief that software should give the user four rights: freedom
to run the program for any purpose; to study the source code and then
change it if one wishes; freedom to help one's neighbour and freedom to
re-distribute the software.
But these rights have often got in the way of businesses doing deals. The
GPL has been the object of much fear, uncertainty and doubt, with people
describing it as "viral".
In what is reminiscent of what was gone through when the OSD was released
10 years go, Raymond has come out with a short article detailing why he
thinks there is an economic case against the GPL...
The Economic Case Against the GPL http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=928
Is open-source development a more efficient system of software production
than the closed-source system? I think the answer is probably yes, and
that it follows the GNU GPL is probably doing us more harm than good.
I mean 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. Now, lets
divide up all possible worlds according to whether the answer to our
question is yes or no.
In all worlds, markets seek efficiency, because investors are constantly
seeking the best return on capital. Thus guarantees the most efficient
system will win, eventually. The flip side of this is that markets will
punish those who adopt the less efficient mode. Theyll be outcompeted.
Capital will flow away from them.
If we live in Type A a universe where closed source is more efficient,
markets will eventually punish people who take closed source code open.
Markets will correspondingly reward people who take open source closed.
In this kind of universe, open source is doomed; the GPL will be
subverted or routed around by efficiency-seeking investors as surely as
water flows downhill.
If we live in a Type B universe where open source is more efficient,
markets will eventually punish people who take open source code closed.
Markets will correspondingly reward people who take closed source open.
In such a universe closed source is its own punishment; open source will
capture ever-larger swathes of industry as investors chase efficiency
In a Type A universe, reciprocal licensing is futile. In a Type B
universe, reciprocal licensing is unnecessary. In neither universe can
the GPLs attempts to punish what we regard as misbehavior have more than
short-term, temporary effects. At most it can speed or slow movement on
the efficiency gradient, not reverse it.
For the GPL to actually determine the mode of software production, we
would have to live in a universe where the difference in efficiency
between open and closed-source development is so vanishingly close to
zero that over typical project lifetimes it is less than the cost of an
enforcement lawsuit. This seems as wildly unlikely as flipping a coin and
having it land standing on an edge.
I think we live in a type B universe - that is, one in which the GPL is
unnecessary rather than futile. Mind you, I am not claiming the GPL is
entirely useless. Its a signaling behavior, like wearing a crucifix or
yarmulke or pentagram - it helps build trust groups. But it has costs,
too it creates a lot of needless fear from potential allies and users
who suspect they wont be able to control their exposure if they let it
This fear is only exacerbated when we actually sue to enforce it. Its
obvious to pretty much everyone in the open-source community that the
RIAA is slitting its own throat by suing music downloaders, alienating
future customers wholesale. Its not obvious why the Software Freedom Law
Centers current lawsuit against Cisco is any smarter - we stand to lose
not only Cisco as an ally, but any corporation that estimates (rightly or
wrongly) that their own potential exposure to an SFLC lawsuit might be
greater than their potential efficiency gains from open-sourcing.
So the correct question to ask is this: Is the GPLs utility as a form of
in-group signaling worth the degree to which fear and uncertainty about
it slows down open-source adoption? Increasingly I think the answer
The GPL may be a community-building signalling device, but it is also a
confession of fear and weakness. To believe that it matters, you have to
believe that you live in a Type A universe where closed-source
development is such an attractive proposition that you have to punish
people for trying to move to it.
So maybe an even more fundamental question to ask is this: Does the open-
source community believe in itself, genuinely believe it has a more
efficient system of production? And if it does, does it make sense to
choose a license that implies the opposite?
This entry was posted on Sunday, April 26th, 2009 at 9:00 pm
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