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13 June 2011, 11:08

Do we still need the FSF, GNU and GPL?

by Glyn Moody

It's easy to take things for granted – to assume that the world will always be as it is. And then sometimes you receive a mild jolt: some new information appears that makes you sit up and reconsider your preconceptions.

Here's one jolt I received recently:

After building the infrastructure to analyse the code in an Ubuntu release I decided to satisfy a simple curiosity and figure out how much GNU software is actually part of a modern distribution. I picked Ubuntu natty (released in April) as a reference, am counting lines of code (LOC) as the rough metric for size of a given project, and am considering only the “main” repository, supposedly the core of the distribution, actually packaged by Ubuntu and not repackaged from Debian.

Figure 1 shows the total LOC in Ubuntu natty split by the major projects that produce it. By this metric GNU software is about 8%. I didn’t include GNOME in the GNU category because it seems to now be effectively run outside GNU but including that the total for GNU would be around 13%.

Here's another:

According to Black Duck’s figures the proportion of open source projects using the GPL family of licenses has fallen to 61% today from 70% in June 2008, while the GPLv2 has fallen to 45% from 58% three years ago.

It is worth noting that the number of projects using the GPL licenses has increased in real terms over the past few years. According to our calculations based on Black Duck’s figures, the number of GPLv2 projects rose 5.5% between June 2009 and June 2011, while the total number of open source projects grew over 16%.

In comparison the number of Apache licensed projects grew 46% over the past two years, while the number of MIT licensed projects grew 152%. Indeed Black Duck’s figures indicate that the MIT License has been the biggest gainer in the last two years, jumping from 3.8% of all projects in June 2009 to 8.23% today, leapfrogging Apache, BSD, GPLv3 and LGPLv2.1 in the process.

So, on the one hand we have the fact that the GNU in GNU/Linux represents quite a small total of the code in a leading distro (albeit as much as the Linux kernel); on the other, if you believe the figures from Black Duck (and some have their doubts given the lack of a transparent methodology), the use of permissive licences seems to be growing rapidly, while the proportion of projects choosing copyleft may soon dip below half.

Putting these apparently unrelated pieces of information together, does this presage an increasing irrelevance for the whole free software movement, something that I had naively assumed was a fixture in the computing firmament? Let's look at the three key elements involved here – the FSF, GNU and GPL.

The Free Software Foundation is the guardian of the original GNU project that started everything. Although the home page loyally mentions GNU Hurd, it does concede that it “is still some way from being ready for daily use.” But that's not a big problem, of course, because Linux came along to fill the Hurd-shaped hole at the heart of GNU. So, in a sense, the GNU project is complete – there's even a list of a few GNU/Linux distributions that pass the stringent conditions for inclusion:

Following are the GNU/Linux distributions we know of which have a firm policy commitment to only include and only propose free software. They reject non-free applications, non-free programming platforms, non-free drivers, or non-free firmware “blobs”. If by mistake they do include any, they remove it.

The existence of that list gives a clue as to the FSF's role: it has become an arbiter of the extent to which software is truly free. Now, whether or not you agree with its adjudications, there's no denying it's useful to have this line drawn in the sand, at least as a reference point.

Similarly, many of its more recent software projects aimed at replacing key software that is not free – things like Skype – are a useful reminder that it's not possible to interact with the rest of the world using entirely free software. So in that sense, the GNU project is still incomplete, and the FSF serves a useful purpose in pursuing these wider goals.

It has also spawned independent initiatives like the FreedomBox, which seeks to propagate the FSF's ideals, as the following description from Eben Moglen, prime mover of the FreedomBox project, and former General Counsel of the FSF, makes clear:

Smart devices whose engineered purpose is to work together to facilitate free communication among people, safely and securely, beyond the ambition of the strongest power to penetrate, they can make freedom of thought and information a permanent, ineradicable feature of the net that holds our souls.

But I think there's another, quite different reason why the FSF and the GNU project are important.

Next: The other reason

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