Most of us come to GNU/Linux and FOSS for reasons other than the GPL. Some, perhaps, first installed Linux only as a way of tinkering or just to have a look at a PC running something other than Windows. Others, maybe, grew tired of Microsoft or constantly dealing with the “blue screen of death.” The need to breathe new life into a computer that had grown obsolete by Redmond’s standards brought others to discover Linux. Then there are those who came for the free beer.
Not everybody who tries open source stays. More than a few have taken a look at a Linux distro, maybe something purchased shrink wrapped in a box at the Best Buy store or from a CD found in the back of a computer magazine, and threw their hands-up because of a learning curve (however slight it may be) and went running back to the comfort zone of Windows.
Those who stay, who take Tux for a test spin and decide to keep him, usually end up developing a deep respect for the GPL. There are probably as many reasons for this as there are reasons why we tried Linux and free software to begin with.
To some the GPL is merely a really cool model for developing software. It’s a way for many people, or many organizations, with a shared need or interest to develop software by spreading-out the cost through shared ownership of a product. Although that could also be accomplished with proprietary software, the open source license allows the use of different parts of the code in different applications, which might not be easily done under the proprietary model.
To many in this group, the difference between “copyleft” licenses such as the GPL and “permissive” open source licenses are minimal. They note the differences, and take great pains to choose a license that suits their needs, but there is no great philosophical rift between the notion of free software (FOSS) licenses and other open source software (OSS) licenses. Nor do they see the irony in the fact that “permissive” licenses may end-up producing restricted, proprietary software, such as how Apple’s closed OS X is partially built on code freely obtained from FreeBSD and NetBSD.
There are others who see the ideas represented in the GPL as being able to be applied to any form of what’s become known as “intellectual property,” meaning it can be applied to anything that’s covered under copyright law. Since 2002, Creative Commons licenses have been available, which bring some of the copyleft aspects of the GPL to copyrighted material other than software. At present, use of various versions of the Creative Commons license is widespread, especially online. How widespread? In October 2011, Flickr alone hosted over 200 million photographs covered under Creative Commons licenses.
This group, too, doesn’t necessarily see much of a philosophical distinction between copyleft and permissive licenses. Some Creative Commons licenses, for example, allow for a work such as an essay or photograph to be used free for noncommercial purposes but not for commercial use, which might require a fee. Although similar in nature, this is a little different than dual licensing schemes involving the GPL.
For many people, the ideas represented by the GPL and the Free Software Foundation go deeper than copyrights and even economics. Many see the ideas expressed by FOSS advocates as actually representing a somewhat spiritual world view of sharing and joint ownership being codified and specifically applied to computer software.
To this group of people, there is an obvious distinction between copyleft licenses such as the GPL and more permissive but still open source licenses such as BSD or Apache. Perhaps the only reason this group finds the later licenses acceptable is because any code released under a permissive license is also available for release under the GPL.
What’s your take on the GPL?
Is it merely just another way of doing business in the software world? Does it indicate a total world view in the disguise of a software license? Or does it fall somewhere in-between? Maybe you’re one of those who agrees with Steve Ballmer, who once sowed FUD by trying to spread the sentiment that the GPL was, by nature, communist? Perhaps you don’t care, as long as you get to use free software?
We’d like to know what you think. Take our poll. And if you want to say more than can be said by ticking-off answers, feel free to leave a comment below.