GPL worldview WAS Re: Rchard Stallman vs Darl McBride

Richard Esplin richard-lists at
Tue Jul 20 20:21:00 MDT 2010

Responses are inline.

On Tuesday, July 20, 2010 19:14:43 Levi Pearson <levipearson at> wrote:
> > The GPL provides some strong protections for code creators.
> >
> > * Reciprocity plays to a sense of justice
> >
> >    I am not going to use my free time working on a project which will
> >    primarily enrich Bill Gates and his share-holders (or any other
> >    company).
> >
> If you're using your free time to work on a project, presumably you're
> primarily enriching yourself.  If it's not personally enriching, you
> probably shouldn't be doing it in your free time!  If you don't want
> someone else to make money from your efforts, either don't release it,
> or release it with a no-commercial-use license.  The GPL doesn't
> prohibit selling software, it just obliges people who distribute
> modified versions to make source available.  If you're worried about
> them taking credit for your work, there are licenses that require that
> credit/attribution be given to you.  In other words, I don't see how
> the above description of motivations is related to a sense of justice
> as much as it is related to compelling other people to do what you
> want them to do with their efforts.

Personal enrichment is only one motivation for contributing to a software project. From the perspective of what is best for the open source ecosystem, it is perhaps one of the less valuable motivations.

You are miss-characterizing the primary motivation. For people like me, the point is to maximize social good. The worry is not commercial use or miss-attribution. The point is to build something that would have economic value, and give it away for free because it will benefit others. Asking those who want to benefit from my work to contribute back their changes seems like a just request. Letting others leverage the economic value of my contribution without giving anything in return appears unjust.

> > * Reciprocity provides the hope of additional contributions
> >
> >    When I select the GPL, I am optimistic that someone else will likeIf
> >    my code enough to contribute to it, and respect the license enough
> >    that I will benefit from their additions. The BSD provides a warm-
> >    fuzzy feeling that my code might help someone else, but I have no
> >    legal expectation that I will benefit in return.
> GPL provides no expectation of benefit, only an expectation of access
> to source code of changes.  There's no reason that the GPL would
> compel someone to make changes that would be useful to you or in a
> form you would like.  Cooperation can't be compelled by license, and
> it makes business sense to cooperate outside of license compulsion.  I
> don't think the GPL was required to bring about this understanding,
> but that's certainly debatable.

In legal terms, having an expectation of access to source code of derived works is a benefit with economic value.

Though not preferable, cooperation can be compelled by license. Look at the Linksys WRT54G experience. It is true that it is preferable to cooperate outside of license compulsion, but the GPL encourages such cooperation by creating a level playing field with clearly defined legal expectations. This allows competitors to cooperate while avoiding the free-rider problem.

In a competitive free-market economy, it is too risky to cooperate without some legal agreement. The Apache Project and the Eclipse Foundation provide the legal basis of cooperation through the legal agreements of their governing boards. I personally think the software license is a lower bandwidth way of defining the terms of the cooperation.

> > * Share-alike creates more open code
> >
> >    The legal obligation of reciprocity can act as a multiplier on hobby
> >    code contributions, because corporations that want to improve the code
> >    have additional reasons to persuade management to release their
> >    improvements.
> >
> >    At two different companies, I have been able to release improvements
> >    to open source code because the project we wanted to use was licensed
> >    under the GPL. If it had been BSD licensed, that code would be rotting
> >    on some small team within the companies.
> >
> >    The programmers who produced that code were not paid to create it,
> >    but they benefit from my team being paid to improve it.
> I have worked with companies that were extremely hesitant to touch
> anything GPL-related due to worries about license contamination of
> important IP.  They would not release source related to that IP under
> a free license under any circumstance, though they might find it
> useful to cooperate with others on non-core software.  GPL would
> prevent that non-core cooperation due to the worry of being forced to
> release core IP.  The open source projects I have contributed to are
> things that we would have contributed to regardless of license,
> because cooperation was one of the goals from the beginning.

Companies who do not want to disclose their improvements to GPL code should not be using that code. They should be paying for the code they are using.

It is true that many companies are paranoid about using GPL code. This is mostly due to ignorance, and not due to any problem with the GPL license. The GPL has the best understood requirements of what counts as a derivative work of any license I know of--much better defined then the license terms of most libraries that companies incorporate into their products. In my experience, law suits are more rare as well; royalty disputes happen regularly with commercial licenses. The simple business rule is that if you don't write it yourself, you should be cautious with how it interacts with your core IP. The GPL does not make this any worse, and due to its clear definition it actually makes it better.

The only way in which it is harder to understand how to appropriately use GPL code then a commercially licensed library is that it is often impossible to find a single entity to negotiate with. But if you need to negotiate the use of the code, then perhaps you shouldn't be using GPL code in your product.

> > * Share-alike protects the programmer
> >
> >    When I am paid to learn and contribute to GPL code licensed code,
> >    I know that the time and effort I have invested will be transferable
> >    to other customers and employers. Other open source licenses have
> >    much weaker protections.
> >
> If you contribute code to a project under an open source license, that
> code remains under an open source license.  Some future version may be
> released under a different license if you've transferred copyright to
> your portions of the work to the project, but the version you
> contributed to remains open.  Of course, whoever runs the project
> could always rip your code out, GPL or not.  Your effort is never
> guaranteed to remain accessible to others in future versions.

It is true that any open source license provides this protection. That is a good thing for contributers. The GPL provides the additional protection that your code can not be used in a future version under a different license. If the project maintainer rips out my code, then I have no just claim on how they license their project--I have contributed nothing. I can't force someone to enter into a legal agreement with me, all I can do is produce something that will have enough value for people to choose to enter into such a relationship. This is exactly like a commercial software license, except the relationship is more fair because it guarantees that future users will have certain rights.

> > The GPL might not be the right fit for every line of code you create, but software licenses are important and ignoring the license on code you create or use results in giving up rights that you might prefer to retain or that you should retain on behalf of your company.
> Giving up the right to not distribute parts of your source code is a
> pretty significant right to give up for some pretty dubious
> 'protection' offered by the GPL.  You can argue that it's a good idea
> anyway, but it's far from clear that it's objectively true.  RMS gets
> around the question of whether it's worthwhile or not by asserting
> that it's just the right thing to do, and not doing it is morally
> wrong.  I don't buy it.

This is a confusing paragraph, because the GPL does not in any way restrict what you can do with the code you author.

I am guessing that you are confusing the rights of the code author with the rights of the code user. The code author is the one who choose the license--who decides what rights he or she is willing to surrender. The code user had no rights to begin with, so any rights granted by the GPL is a benefit. If the user does not want to abide by the terms of the GPL, then no one is obligating that user to derive a work from a GPL'd code base.

> I'm okay with the existence of the GPL, and people who like it are
> welcome to use it if it represents what they want to achieve with a
> license.  I just don't want to be preached to about software freedom.

Software freedom is a major motivation for contributing to open source projects. Most (not all) businesses are in the pursuit of easy revenue whatever the social cost, and using intellectual property protections and political means to remove user choice is a key way to do that. Red Hat's CEO recently said that for every dollar of revenue they take in, they displace $10 of revenue from traditional software companies. That is a good illustration of how high their margins have been and how many resources they can use to warp a market.

Increasing software freedom lowers our costs for participating in an information economy, thereby creating a more just society--it lessens the digital divide. According to Mr. Lessig it also increases our ability to participate in an open democracy.

That might not be your motivation for participating in the community. I still benefit from your contribution, and appreciate you being around. But promoting software freedom is a good thing for us to do as well, and I think we shy away from it too much. I think the key is to avoid militancy in our advocacy. But us geeks don't have very good tact meters; hopefully we are getting better.

I've spent too much time on this thread. I still have lots of PLUG emails to catch up on from my vacation with no network access.



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