[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, let’s 
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. They’ll 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 GPL’s 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. It’s 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 won’t be able to control their exposure if they let it 

This fear is only exacerbated when we actually sue to enforce it. It’s 
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. It’s not obvious why the Software Freedom Law 
Center’s 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 GPL’s 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 
is “no”. 

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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