Does The GPL Still Matter?
from the expired-license? dept
The GNU General Public License heads to court again today, as Skype attempts to defend its distribution of Linux-enabled SMC hardware handsets that appear to be in violation of the operating system’s open source license. It’s easy to guess why Skype is fighting the suit, which was brought by GPL activists: the company relies on a proprietary protocol, and releasing the code could give competitors an advantage. You can’t blame them for trying. Although in the past few years the GPL has made important strides in establishing its legal enforceability, it’s still conceivable that a court could find something wrong with its unusual, viral nature.
Few think that this will be the court case that makes or breaks the GPL. Skype’s already lost early rounds of this fight, and the claims it’s now making seem so broad as to imply desperation. Besides, the case is being tried in the German legal system, which to date has proven friendly to the GPL.
But even if the license was invalidated, either in this case or another, there’s an argument to be made that the GPL has already served its purpose. Its impact on the world of open source software is undeniable: by ensuring that an open project would remain open, the license encouraged programmers to contribute to projects without fear of their work being coopted by commercial interests. And by making it difficult, if not impossible, for a project derived from a GPLed project to go closed-source, it encouraged many programmers to license their efforts under open terms when they otherwise might not have.
But today, with open source firmly established as a cultural and commercial force, the GPL’s relevance may be waning. The transition to the third version of the license left many in the open source community upset and intent on sticking with its earlier incarnations. And an increasing number of very high profile projects, like Mozilla, Apache and Open Office, have seen fit to create their own licenses or employ the less restrictive LGPL. The raw numbers bear out the idea of a slight decline in the GPL’s prominence, too: Wikipedia lists the percentage of GPLed projects on Sourceforge.net and Freshmeat.net, two large open source software repositories, as 68% and 65%, respectively, as of November ’03 and January ’06. Today, the most recently available numbers show that Sourceforge’s share has fallen to 65%, and Freshmeat’s share has fallen to to 62%.
This is, of course, a small decline, and the GPL remains the world’s most popular open source license by a considerable margin. But it does seem as though there may be a slowly decreasing appetite for the license’s militant approach to copyleft ideals. I certainly don’t wish Skype well in its probably-quixotic tilt at the GPL, but if they were to somehow get lucky at least they’d be doing so at a point in the open source movement’s history when the GPL is decreasingly essential.