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Old 04-14-2008, 12:34 PM   #1
NNP
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Why open source developers need to stop using a free software license


I've been using Linux and open source software for a number of years now and I've also used a variety of open source licenses, predominantly the GNU GPL. Up until recently I never really gave it much thought and essentially went with "If its good enough for Linux then its good enough for me". Recently I spent some time reading the GPL and the Free Software Foundations literature and I came to some conclusions that I really wasn't expecting when I started out.

Anywhom, I'd like to hear what anyone has to say about the conclusions I've come to etc.

""The GNU General Purpose License (GPL) is a tenet of the open source community, and considered by many to be the foundation of the open source movement. It facilitates the free and unhindered distribution and modification of software whilst protecting this software and its copyright owners from a multitude of potential abuses. Of course, under critical analysis, some troublesome issues arise that have serious implications for the hardworking open source community, and indicate that the interests of the programmer are not the primary concern of its creators, the Free Software Foundation (FSF), or even the license itself."

You can get the rest of it (1600 words or so) from
http://www.unprotectedhex.com/articles/gpl.pdf
http://www.unprotectedhex.com/articles/gpl.rtf
or the plain text blog post from http://preview.tinyurl.com/5fx9ob

I'd love to hear some counter arguments/comments/criticism.

-nnp

EDIT 2: Right, so apparently the title is a little too feisty for some peoples liking and I'd better explain why I went on this 'rant' in the first place. The details are all in the article/text that follows; in summary, I've become disillusioned with the GPL after years of using it and now I am much more in favour of a license like the CC ones or better still the MPL (I'm aware this recognised as a free software license also). The main reason I am more in favour of these is that they lack the viral quality of the GPL and thus don't force any licensing decisions on the programmer once they have decided they would like to use an API. At the same time the MPL also gives back to the community as any updates and improvements to the code base will be open source.

What I want from this topic is for someone to argue the counter point and show me the error of my ways. I loved and used the GPL for years and I would like nothing more than for someone to correct my interpretation of it or the logic I have applied.

EDIT: Here is the rest of the text of the article. Apparently linking to an external site so as to avoid dumping a huge mound of text into a thread is now an advertising attempt.

In the next few paragraphs I am going to outline my issues with the agenda of the FSF and the vehicle they use to promote this, the GPL. The FSF are, in my opinion, militant in their promotion of their brand of ‘freedom’ and on top of this, misleading about their true goals. As for the GPL, it suffers from a number of ethical and practical problems and goes far beyond the necessary means to maintain a healthy open source community with the requisite protections many of us have come to expect. Unfortunately, it has also become the defacto license for many open source projects and this has, in my opinion, damaged the open source community. I firmly believe that the open source community would be better served a license that promotes the open source ideals without the burden of the free software fundamentalism.

I should note at this point that I am a firm believer in open source and the freedom of knowledge. I am also in favour of many open source licenses. My issues lie with free software licenses which are rather unfortunately often confused with open source, and the way in which they are promoted.

I have issues with the GPL at two levels, the ethical/philosophical level and the practical level. My ethical problems stem from the Free Software Foundation’s definition of ‘freedom’ combined with the viral nature of the GPL. Running parallel to this, my practical concerns relate to the effect of this viral nature on open source applications and our community; namely, how GPLed code can play an insignificantly small part in an application, yet the overhead of its license can taint the whole application and the detrimental effect this could have on the use and acceptance of open source projects.

I think the GPL is much moreso a vehicle for the FSF to push their agenda than a software license designed to allow people to learn, study and benefit from the openness of software, as they would have one believe. It includes a number of clauses that go above and beyond what would be required to ensure these basic needs. For one, the clauses which make the GPL viral are completely over the top and I will deal with this later.

I think I would have much less of a problem with the FSF and the GPL if they were entirely up front about their agenda. Unfortunately, quotes like the following, from http://www.fsf.org/about, in my opinion, seek to portray the intentions of the GPL in a fashion entirely different from its actual legal meaning

“To use free software is to make a political and ethical choice asserting the right to learn, and share what we learn with others. Free software has become the foundation of a learning society where we share our knowledge in a way that others can build upon and enjoy.”

I have two issues with the above. Firstly, I dislike the mixing of political agendas into a place where they really don’t need to be and secondly, this quote uses the word ‘right’ where it should use ‘obligation’ if it is intended as a comment on the GPL or the agenda of the FSF. I say this because as you go down the road of GPL software you quickly realise a lot of decisions are being made that you would imagine would be up to you if you were truly ‘free’.

On the ethical/philosophical level I take issue with the way in which the FSF define ‘freedom’ and throw that definition about. From http://www.fsf.org/about:

“Free software is software that gives you the user the freedom to share, study and modify it. We call this free software because the user is free.”

But the user isn’t free. The user might be free to share, study and modify the source code of the program, but that freedom stops as soon as it comes to licensing issues dealing with the inclusion or use of GPLed code in a non-GPLed application. The list of absurd restrictions can be found by looking at the GPL’s FAQ at http://www.fsf.org/licensing/licenses/gpl-faq.html

From these restrictions it becomes abundantly clear that any software interacting with GPLed software at a distance closer than ‘arms length’ is, in the eyes of the FSF, required to use the GPL license itself. For many of us the freedom to chose and control the licensing models our applications will use is as important, if not more so, than the freedom granted to us by the GPL with regard to the work of others.

I should point out, when I am talking about applications that have been created with GPLed code I don’t mean they grabbed some GPLed software, made a few small changes and now want to change the license. I am talking about applications of which the core ideas, and the vast majority of the code is original and non-derivative work.

I find the license comparable to a lazy manager who claims all the credit for a project regardless of their contribution. While I agree with the idea of open source I also believe in freedom of choice, true freedom, not the Free Software Foundation’s brand of freedom, which is engineered to push their agenda. I believe that freedom of choice has a much greater precedence, both ethically and philosophically, than the concept of freedom of software and that the GPL license is a hypocritical piece of work that pushes certain freedoms and curtails others.

From a practical standpoint, the viral nature of the GPL just doesn’t hold up in my opinion. I have no problem with the stipulation that we provide the source code to any GPLed software we may use in a proprietary system, but the requirements to GPL the entire application are absurd. I find it difficult to reconcile this trait of the GPL with any aims of the open source movement that couldn’t be achieved in a more elegant fashion. The following example will hopefully illustrate my point.

Take a complex piece of proprietary software, such the controlling software for the launch sequence of a space shuttle. Now, say the developer is particularly resourceful and wants to include some software in that to do basic mathematical operations (e.g addition, subtraction, multiplication and division), but doesn’t want to write it themselves, so they go and find a GPL’ed library to do it for them. According to the FSF’s FAQ, “A system incorporating a GPL-covered program is an extended version of that program”.

So, the 50,000 line application that contains a few calls to a GPLed math library is now an extended version of that program? Another phrase thrown about on the FSF site is ‘derivative work’. I find it hard to see the reason logically, practically or ethically that would allow one to come to this conclusion without an ulterior and rather arrogant agenda.

As I mentioned already, I agree entirely that any modifications or improvements to this math library should be made public and open source and, in the spirit of open source, I also agree the final version of the math library, included in the proprietary system, should be made public and free of charge. This deals with a situation mentioned by the FSF where one could end up competing with a proprietary version of their own code and at the same time contributes well tested and high quality code to the open source community.

In the real world, what would probably happen in the above situation is that the GPLed math library wouldn’t be used at all because the licensing terms would be deemed unacceptable. As a result the improvements and additions made by the company during the course of their project would not be made and the open source community would suffer. In this situation the GPL only serves to antagonise the developers of the proprietary application and damage the open source community. While the former outcome is definitely within the scope of the FSF’s goals, I can’t think of any way in which the latter would be considered acceptable, given their commitment to “a learning society where we share our knowledge in a way that others can build upon and enjoy.”.

It is for these reasons I have become disillusioned by the goals of the FSF and their true commitment to learning and knowledge, which are in my opinion, far more critical than the abolishment of proprietary systems and the furthering of the FSF’s agenda. The GPL has unfortunately not been able to escape the baggage of its sponsoring organisation and as a result exceeds the rational boundaries necessary to ensure the development of the open source community and its software. On future projects I will no longer be using the GPL and am calling for any developers currently using it to re-evaluate their position. I think many of us will be able to find open source licenses that protect and promote open source software without the political and social agenda that riddles the GPL.

Last edited by NNP; 04-14-2008 at 05:33 PM. Reason: Some people can't distinguish an argument from trolling
 
Old 04-14-2008, 12:42 PM   #2
b0uncer
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Well, there's no perfect licence - if there was something perfect in this world (regarding computers), we probably wouldn't need licences. Or then we wouldn't do anything but licences.

I seem to question the GPL-style licences once in a while, seeing a whole lot of other - closed/commercial - licences at work, but this far (years and years of reading) I haven't still found any reason that made them any worse than a tightly closed commercial licence. Both have their benefits - for some people, that is; not everyone can benefit from the one and same licence - but both have their drawbacks too; if there weren't any drawbacks, there would only be one God Licence that did the trick of making everyone happy.

Most importantly I think that the decicion of which licence to use should be made per-project and per-goals basis; not every situation suits for every licence and vice versa. Therefore it's absurd to say something general like "open source developers need to stop using free software licence".
 
Old 04-14-2008, 01:08 PM   #3
NNP
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Quote:
Originally Posted by b0uncer View Post
Most importantly I think that the decicion of which licence to use should be made per-project and per-goals basis; not every situation suits for every licence and vice versa. Therefore it's absurd to say something general like "open source developers need to stop using free software licence".
Hrm, I guess what my main point from that article is, is that open source developers can have 'open source' without all the political/social overtones that come with the GPL and the rather insane 'derivative works' clause. Most open source projects would, in my opinion be better served by a license like the Mozilla Public License or one of the CC licenses. I'm aware the MPL is also a free software license but it doesn't have the ridiculous viral nature of the GPL while still providing the vast majority of protections that we need.

So I don't really consider it absurd, if your basis for the project is that it is going to be 'open source' and you don't want all the extra bells and whistles of the GPL then there is no need to use it and doing so, in my opinion, is as much a hindrance to other people that might want to learn from/use your code, as it is a help.
 
Old 04-14-2008, 01:28 PM   #4
Tinkster
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You could just see the GPL as an over-reaction to closed source.
To make sure that your work doesn't become abused in a similar
way as proprietary source gets used (who ever really knows how
much of it was snaffled from others?) it seems like a viable
solution. I have no problem with it, and can very well see
where they're coming from. Something that was free should not
become closed in the process of being re-used.

On the other hand I can see how the BSD license makes sense, too ;}


Cheers,
Tink
 
Old 04-14-2008, 01:43 PM   #5
NNP
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Originally Posted by Tinkster View Post
Something that was free should not
become closed in the process of being re-used.
I agree entirely but I think it is too far a jump to then expect the developer to also make everything they create open as well, because they have an API call to some useful module you have created. Ideally, in my opinion, the developer should have to open source any updates or improvements to your code so that the open source community is benefiting but I'm all for letting them keep their code private if that is what they want.
 
Old 04-14-2008, 01:50 PM   #6
SciYro
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Very nice attempt at a advertisement. Since Im to lazy to click your link, I shall just base my opinions from what you have posted:

Your either trolling, or have no idea what your talking about. Of course the GPL and the FSF do not serve 'the' (as in: one) programmer. If they did, they would tell you to sell your work, not give it away, and to never release your source code. The whole point of the GPL is to ensure that people who like to tinker around with code as a hobby can do so freely, and in safe knowledge that their work wont get locked up if they release it so others can use the software. You also seem to think the 'viral' nature of the GPL is bad, but in reality has no effect on any project. Don't like the GPL? Don't use GPL'd code, simple as that.

If you think your project is better served from a diffrent license, then stop complaining about the GPL, is does not, has not, and could never stop you from using another license.
 
Old 04-14-2008, 02:00 PM   #7
ilikejam
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Sorry, but I agree fully with the GPL's terms as they stand in the GPLv2, from a moral, commercial and legal perspective. On the other hand, I don't have a problem with proprietary software, so I'm probably at odds with the ideals of the FSF.

Quote:
Take a complex piece of proprietary software, such the controlling software for the launch sequence of a space shuttle. Now, say the developer is particularly resourceful and wants to include some software in that to do basic mathematical operations (e.g addition, subtraction, multiplication and division), but doesn’t want to write it themselves, so they go and find a GPL’ed library to do it for them. According to the FSF’s FAQ, “A system incorporating a GPL-covered program is an extended version of that program”.

So, the 50,000 line application that contains a few calls to a GPLed math library is now an extended version of that program? Another phrase thrown about on the FSF site is ‘derivative work’. I find it hard to see the reason logically, practically or ethically that would allow one to come to this conclusion without an ulterior and rather arrogant agenda.
2 issues with this:
1) If the software is never distributed outside of the (legal) organisation, the GPL doesn't kick in, so you /can/ use the GPLed library.
2) The tone of this seems to imply that there is some kind of God given right to use the GPLed library just because it's available.

If a library is simple enough to be a trivial part of a program, then it should be trivial enough to implement yourself. If a library is an important part of the program, then complying with the GPL should be a small price to pay for having so much work done for you already.

There's a reason that Linux has become so popular when there already existed Free Unix implementations. That reason _is_ the GPL.

Dave
 
Old 04-14-2008, 02:05 PM   #8
tiocsti
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A few comments, first off let me say i'm not a big fan of the GPL for my own use; that is, software I write. That said, if you don't like the terms of the GPL, you are free to use a different library, piece of code, etc.

Second, using a gpl library does not force you to make your contributions gpl, it only forces the combined work to be distributed under the terms of the gpl. This is a subtle, but rather important point.

As for your example of software controlling the launch sequence of a shuttle: it's unlikely this code would be distributed, so the gpl does not really apply.

All comments based on gpl2, I'm unsure of the nuances of the gpl3, but the basic principles hold for that license as well. If the gpl is unacceptable, implement the functionality you need from scratch.
 
Old 04-14-2008, 02:06 PM   #9
jschiwal
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The LGPL license is less restrictive in that sense. You would only be required to re-release the library source that you modify but not the program that links against it. It you were to link against a propriety library, you would have to comply with its license as well which could entail a fee.
 
Old 04-14-2008, 02:07 PM   #10
H_TeXMeX_H
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SciYro View Post
Very nice attempt at a advertisement. Since Im to lazy to click your link, I shall just base my opinions from what you have posted:

Your either trolling, or have no idea what your talking about. Of course the GPL and the FSF do not serve 'the' (as in: one) programmer. If they did, they would tell you to sell your work, not give it away, and to never release your source code. The whole point of the GPL is to ensure that people who like to tinker around with code as a hobby can do so freely, and in safe knowledge that their work wont get locked up if they release it so others can use the software. You also seem to think the 'viral' nature of the GPL is bad, but in reality has no effect on any project. Don't like the GPL? Don't use GPL'd code, simple as that.

If you think your project is better served from a diffrent license, then stop complaining about the GPL, is does not, has not, and could never stop you from using another license.
I agree. This post can be considered flamebait, I mean you can tell it just from the title 'Why open source developers need to stop using a free software license' (NOW !!!!!!!!!!!). And I can be considered as adding to the flames to make nice big bonfire to come, but I shall only add a twig, hopefully.

There's no point in flaming/arguing about this topic, especially when presented in such a manner. A calmer, nicer, saner thread topic might have been: 'Should I use an open-source or proprietary license for my next project ?' then ask for pros and cons, not say 'STOP USING OPEN SOURCE LICENSES NOW !!!' like the current title reads to me, and the links you've posted have a strong stench of this too. Don't do this, it's trolling.

Everyone has the right to use whatever license they see fit, and there is no way this thread will ever turn out well with that as the thread start.

I vote for close.
 
Old 04-14-2008, 02:12 PM   #11
tiocsti
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Quote:
Originally Posted by n.n.p View Post
I agree entirely but I think it is too far a jump to then expect the developer to also make everything they create open as well, because they have an API call to some useful module you have created. Ideally, in my opinion, the developer should have to open source any updates or improvements to your code so that the open source community is benefiting but I'm all for letting them keep their code private if that is what they want.
Ideally, the developer of the library can license it in a way that best serves their needs. The GPL is a pretty fair deal, but one should not confuse free software with public domain. Some people want the freedom guarantee the gpl offers users, others want a more permissive license. Neither one is right, all licenses involve tradeoffs.
 
Old 04-14-2008, 04:49 PM   #12
NNP
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SciYro View Post
Very nice attempt at a advertisement. Since Im to lazy to click your link, I shall just base my opinions from what you have posted:

Your either trolling, or have no idea what your talking about. Of course the GPL and the FSF do not serve 'the' (as in: one) programmer. If they did, they would tell you to sell your work, not give it away, and to never release your source code. The whole point of the GPL is to ensure that people who like to tinker around with code as a hobby can do so freely, and in safe knowledge that their work wont get locked up if they release it so others can use the software. You also seem to think the 'viral' nature of the GPL is bad, but in reality has no effect on any project.
Erm, which reality would this be? Because in the one I happen to frequent, any licensed code that has the potential to force the same license onto anything it is used with would definitely fall under the heading of an 'effect'.

As for the advertisement comment, just shush. My site was the handiest place to upload it to so I don't see why I'd bother putting it someplace else. I could have copy/pasted the entire text in here but why the hell would I when it is already some place else?
 
Old 04-14-2008, 04:55 PM   #13
NNP
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Quote:
Originally Posted by H_TeXMeX_H View Post
I agree. This post can be considered flamebait, I mean you can tell it just from the title 'Why open source developers need to stop using a free software license' (NOW !!!!!!!!!!!). And I can be considered as adding to the flames to make nice big bonfire to come, but I shall only add a twig, hopefully.

There's no point in flaming/arguing about this topic, especially when presented in such a manner. A calmer, nicer, saner thread topic might have been: 'Should I use an open-source or proprietary license for my next project ?' then ask for pros and cons, not say 'STOP USING OPEN SOURCE LICENSES NOW !!!' like the current title reads to me, and the links you've posted have a strong stench of this too. Don't do this, it's trolling.

Everyone has the right to use whatever license they see fit, and there is no way this thread will ever turn out well with that as the thread start.

I vote for close.
*sigh*. Its called a polemic. It's meant to incite debate and last time I checked it was a perfectly valid way to start one.

The reason I used such language is I wanted people to see the topic and come in and set me straight/argue their point. Why would I use nice, touchy-feely language if what I want is a lively debate? Either argue your point and stop crying or just ignore the thread.

It *is* possible to have an argumentative debate without resorting to flaming/random abuse. If you bothered to RTFA you would see that I don't just say 'omg the GPL sux0rz fgts' but present my interpretation of it plus why I think a lot of open source projects and the community in general would be better served with a less extreme license.

Quote:
Originally Posted by tiocsti View Post
A few comments, first off let me say i'm not a big fan of the GPL for my own use; that is, software I write. That said, if you don't like the terms of the GPL, you are free to use a different library, piece of code, etc.

Second, using a gpl library does not force you to make your contributions gpl, it only forces the combined work to be distributed under the terms of the gpl. This is a subtle, but rather important point.
Right, that is one part of it that confuses me. For example, if I have an application that I want to release, say under the MPL, and in that application I use a GPL API for some functionality. From my interpretation of the GPL there is no way to distribute my code without licensing it under the GPL. e.g Releasing my app without the required API and saying 'Download this GPL'ed code and place it in this dictionary' would be a no-no. Yes? No?

Last edited by NNP; 04-14-2008 at 06:08 PM.
 
Old 04-14-2008, 06:59 PM   #14
Hangdog42
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Quote:
For example, if I have an application that I want to release, say under the MPL, and in that application I use a GPL API for some functionality. From my interpretation of the GPL there is no way to distribute my code without licensing it under the GPL. e.g Releasing my app without the required API and saying 'Download this GPL'ed code and place it in this dictionary' would be a no-no.
And hence the reason for the LGPL, to at least ameliorate some of the ambiguity about linking to GPL code. Of course some people would (rightly in my opinion) argue that the new application SHOULD be GPL if it relies on previously GPL'ed code, even if just by linking. That is likely one of the reasons the original authors chose the GPL for their code. Which of course leaves everyone else with two choices....

1) Use the GPL code and release the new program under the GPL
2) Don't use the GPL code


Of course then there is the third way which is probably all to common which is the use the GPL code and ignore the GPL.
 
Old 04-14-2008, 11:44 PM   #15
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From whats been posted, I can see your preaching to the choir. Of course the FSF is a fanatical organization, thats their whole purpose. They don't care about open source, they are not with the open source movement, they care only, and solely about their own goals (free software, as they defined it). The GPL is a tool they used, and they practically admit to it (or at least, its pretty much obvious if you read enough of their stuff), to spread their agenda. So this makes quite a bit of your bashing the FSF rather strange, no one really doubts what you have to say about the FSF, most people don't even listen to the FSF, but the FSF does play its role one way to another for a lot of people.

Now, the open source movement, either spawned as a result of the FSF or not, is not part of the FSF. They have goals more like your own, and much less extreme then the FSF. You seem to be confusing the two, and blaming the result on the FSF.

And as others have stated: if you don't like the GPL, don't use GPL'd code in your project. This is what I meant by "You also seem to think the 'viral' nature of the GPL is bad, but in reality has no effect on any project.". If the GPL'd code is important enough to be used, then comply by the terms, or seek a special license from the author(s). If your unwilling to comply, then don't use it. If the authors of the original code actually wanted you to use the code in the proprietary way you want, they would have used the LGPL, BSD/MIT, MPL, or whatever license. Since they did not, its safe to conclude they don't care about your needs.

Its true that the use of the GPL may also hurt projects for the reasons you describe. No one actually argues against this, except maybe the FSF (they do think a bit strangely like that), but as I said, no one really takes what the FSF says without a heavy dish of salt. Its up to the programmers to know what license to use, the GPL just happens to be used a lot because a lot of projects are hobby projects, and the GPL is (very much arguably) a very good fit for hobbyists. For projects that want to see wide spread use across the industry, they actually do use less restrictive licenses.

This is why I say the GPL's viral nature has no real effect, without the GPL'd code you are trying to use, you are back to square one: implement it yourself or find some other code to use. Its really no loss.
 
  


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