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30 March 2009, 09:49

The GPL - Not fade away

The H explores the arguments for and against abandoning the General Public License

by Richard Hillesley

These days free and open source software (FOSS) is recognised as a significant model for the development and distribution of software, transforming the way that software is written, perceived, packaged and sold. A large part of the success of free and open source software has been due to the revolution in software licensing that was led by the GNU General Public License (GPL).

So it is surprising to see a re-emergence of the argument that "we don't need the GPL anymore", (the "we" refers to "open source" developers, and more specifically, to the Linux kernel developers), and that the argument is underpinned by the hoary suggestion that business is "afraid" of the GPL.

Perhaps it is less surprising that the proponent of the argument turns out to be Eric Raymond, a consistent opponent of the GPL. Raymond is not a Linux kernel developer, although he did initiate an ultimately unsuccessful project to rewrite the kbuild system for configuring Linux kernels, and was well known in the late nineties both for his writings and his part in the creation of the Open Source initiative (OSI). The thrust of Raymond's argument is that the success of the Linux kernel project was due to the personal skills of Linus Torvalds.

He says "I don't think the GPL is the principal reason for Linux's success. Rather, I believe it's because in 1991 Linus was the first person to find the right social architecture for distributed software development,". "The GPL helped, but I think mainly as a sort of social signal rather than as a legal document with teeth."

"There has been a fair amount of economic analysis done in the last 10 years," he says. "A significant amount of it has been done by, well, me. Which seems to demonstrate that open source is what the economist call a more efficient mode of production use, a superior mode of production. You get better investment, better return out of the resources you invest by doing open source development than closed source development." This, and the larger numbers of developers available to open source projects, will persuade companies that open source is the route to take.

The argument is coloured by the differences in what is meant by "open source" and what is meant by "free software". These differences are less marked than they once were, and less coloured by emotion, but are still vital to understanding why the GPL matters, because the GPL was a vital element in the emergence and growth of FOSS from its hacker origins to commercial acceptance. The OSI was essentially a split, or fork, from the free software movement that was based on the premise that "open source" methodologies produced better software, rather than the notion that software should be "free". The intention was to render free software more palatable for business. Raymond's contention is that "people, especially lawyers, especially corporate bosses, look at the GPL and experience fear. Fear that all of their corporate secrets, business knowledge, and special sauce will suddenly be everted to the outside world by some inadvertent slip by some internal code..."

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