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The other reason

This relates to the fact that the ideas underlying free software – working collaboratively on freely shared information – have now spread to many other domains, and are being explored by yet more. The fact that the GNU project has been going for a quarter of a century, and has helped create a huge ecosystem around itself – including, of course, the naughty bits called “open source” – is a wonderful data point for those trying to encourage other domains to open up and share digital information.

Whatever other role the FSF and GNU project might play at present, this historical one is absolutely crucial for the future. For that reason alone, I will continue to call GNU/Linux just that; indeed even if the direct contribution of GNU to most distros becomes vanishingly small, I will do so in recognition of the fact that without the FSF and GNU we would have nothing in this space, and that thanks to it, we are likely to see the sharing of far more than just software.

So what about that other element, the GNU GPL, that also appears to be in decline?

First, it's worth noting that it still dominates the licensing field – it's nowhere near the 8% level of GNU in GNU/Linux, say. But equally, there is a clear downward trend, assuming the figures are representative. I think they probably are, since they reflect the increasing number of companies turning to open source licences, as opposed to hacker projects. Where the latter might naturally opt for the original copyleft licence, businesses often prefer one that is friendlier to patents, for example, however misguided that may be.

Some might say that doesn't matter, that it is a natural evolution as free software moves from the bedroom into the boardroom, and coder imperatives are replaced by those of corporations. But it turns out that the GPL continues to play a crucial role in a key context – that of open standards.

As I've written at length, the recently-released European Interoperability Framework version 2.0 (EIF v2) represents a real setback for open standards and, indeed, free software.

The key section is the following:

Intellectual property rights related to the specification are licensed on FRAND terms or on a royalty-free basis in a way that allows implementation in both proprietary and open source software.

The problem is that unlike more permissive open source licences, the GNU GPL is not compatible with FRAND – which stands for 'Fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory.'

For example, consider a licence that requires a very small fee to be paid for every copy of software that implements the FRAND 'open standard' in question. That might be a few pence, and hence fair and reasonable; and if it were offered to everyone on those terms, it would also be non-discriminatory. But it would also be impossible to implement in GPL'd software, which can be copied any number of times – there's simply no way that even small licence fees can be collected or paid on a per copy basis.

So the EIF v2 as it stands is not compatible with the GNU GPL except under atypical circumstances (such as a company offering a FRAND licence for *all* free software for a small, one-off payment – hardly something that can be expected). This is something that I and many others have complained loudly about, so it's a known issue with the framework. That means there is always hope that when EIF v3 is drawn up it will return to the wording in EIF v1, which specified quite clearly:

The intellectual property – i.e. patents possibly present – of (parts of) the standard is made irrevocably available on a royalty-free basis.

Now consider the situation where the GNU GPL is considered outdated, and of little relevance to 'modern' software needs. The incompatibilities of the interoperability framework with the GPL can no longer be cited as a problem, since the world and his/her dog have 'moved on' to other, more patent-friendly licences that allow FRAND-compatible forks. Thus the passage from RF to FRAND will have been sanctified, and patents would be a permissible part of the 'open standards' promoted by the EU.

As with the FSF and GNU, the GPL stands as a bulwark against this kind of encroachment. It is not a matter of percentages, but of absolutes. And that's why I believe the FSF, GNU and GPL will always be necessary – whatever their residual 'market shares' – because they will offer fixed points by which actions and options can be judged without losing sight of the core values of freedom and sharing.

See also:

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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