Do we still need the GPL?

Here's a good topic for debate as we approach Independence Day. As I was doing my morning reading, I came across a link to an interview with Eric S.
Written by Joe Brockmeier on

Here's a good topic for debate as we approach Independence Day. As I was doing my morning reading, I came across a link to an interview with Eric S. Raymond, where he says "we don't need the GPL anymore." That certainly caught my attention. Here's part of what Raymond had to say about the GPL:

It's 2005, not 1985. We've learned a lot in the last 20 years. The fears that originally led to the reciprocity stuff in GPL are nowadays, at least in my opinion, baseless. People who do what the GPL tries to prevent (e.g., closed source forks of open source projects) wind up injuring only themselves. They trap themselves unto competing with a small in-house development group against the much larger one in the parent open source project, and failing.

...The pros and cons of "viral licensing" is something I've been thinking about a lot recently. As far back as 1998, I suspected that allegiance to the GPL is actually evidence that open source developers don't really believe their own story. That is, if we really believe that open source is a superior system of production, and therefore that it will drive out closed source in a free market, then why do we think we need infectious licensing? What do we think we gain by punishing defectors?

Stronger virality punishes defectors more effectively, but also has more tendency to scare people away from joining the open source community in the first place. Where the optimum point is all depends on how important punishing defectors really is relative to the economic pressures in favor of open source. My current belief is that the free market will do quite a good job of punishing defectors on its own; thus, increasing virality is a bad move.

There are a couple of problems with Raymond's logic, at least from where I'm sitting. First of all, the argument that "open source developers don't really believe their own story," is based on the assumption that the "story" those developers are trying to tell is Raymond's own "Cathedral and the Bazaar," rather than (for example) espousing Richard Stallman's philosophy that "software should not have owners." Indeed by casting the GPL as merely a business tool, Raymond is highlighting the difference between free software and open source that Stallman has been complaining about for years.

We also have to be realistic, and admit that open source and free software are not really competing in a "free market." FOSS (Free and open source software) competes in a market dominated by entrenched players and monopolies that could easily co-opt open source software as it reaches maturity without most of their customers even realizing the origin of the software.

And, as Stallman writes, the biggest problem that many business types have with free software is that it implies more than business issues:

The main argument for the term "open source software" is that "free software" makes some people uneasy. That's true: talking about freedom, about ethical issues, about responsibilities as well as convenience, is asking people to think about things they might rather ignore. This can trigger discomfort, and some people may reject the idea for that. It does not follow that society would be better off if we stop talking about these things.

Years ago, free software developers noticed this discomfort reaction, and some started exploring an approach for avoiding it. They figured that by keeping quiet about ethics and freedom, and talking only about the immediate practical benefits of certain free software, they might be able to "sell" the software more effectively to certain users, especially business. The term "open source" is offered as a way of doing more of this--a way to be "more acceptable to business." The views and values of the Open Source movement stem from this decision.

...At present, we have plenty of "keep quiet", but not enough freedom talk. Most people involved with free software say little about freedom--usually because they seek to be "more acceptable to business." Software distributors especially show this pattern.

The either/or proposition put forward by Raymond, either developers "believe" in open source as a means of production and therefore can trust the free market to work its magic without the GPL, or they choose the GPL because the open source development method is inferior, is deeply flawed. It presumes that we all share a specific view of the world that many developers do not subscribe to.

Whether we need the GPL or not depends on whether one believes that ethical considerations, or the concept of "free software," are important. From Raymond's point of view, perhaps they're not. However, Raymond's view isn't the only one present in the FOSS community. Look at the Debian project. Yes, Debian GNU/Linux developers are interested in making the software suitable for business -- but without compromising the ethical ideals in the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DSFG).

So, do we still need the GPL? I believe we do. In many ways, Raymond's claim that we don't need the GPL anymore is much like claiming we don't need the Bill of Rights anymore because the free market will ensure that everyone gets a fair shake.

Since Raymond is an avowed fan of guns, I find it particularly odd that he's so quick to dismiss the importance of protecting freedom -- especially since Raymond writes on the Geeks with Guns page, "Geeks and guns are a natural match. Open-source software is about getting freedom; personal firearms are about keeping it." As we approach Independence Day here in the U.S. I'll leave you with that thought -- the GPL is about much more than a software development philosophy: It's about freedom, and we do still need it.


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