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 and, 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.

Filed Under: gpl, licenses, open source
Companies: skype

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  1. identicon
    mobiGeek, 8 May 2008 @ 8:32pm


    The GPL is a copyright license, meaning that everything under the GPL is intellectual property. So the GPL does not detract from your belief that source code is "intellectual property". [I'll stay away from the discussion as to what percentage of source code is truly an "invention" rather than merely incremental adjustments to previous iterations of software].

    The fact that source code is IP doesn't take away from my desire to share it with others in a way that people can't go off and hide it from their customers (note: by "customers" I mean people they give/share/sell it to, not necessarily a commercial customer).

    Let's make something 100% clear: there is NOTHING in the GPL stopping people from making money. NOTHING.

    What the GPL does do is it empowers your customers. It gives them the power to control what happens to the software that they purchase. If you can't figure out a way to use that customer-enabling philosophy to encourage people to purchase your product over a proprietary solution, then you have lots of TechDirt articles to be reading up on. Specifically, those focused on obsolete business models.

    Yes, once the code is in the hands of the person/company/entity that paid for it, they have the right to do whatever they want with it...they did, after all, pay for it. However, what organization wants to pay for something and then make it available to their competitors?? Seems like a pretty silly business decision to invest in something that gives you a business advantage and then go around giving it to your competitors.

    You need to look at the GPL beyond the currently limited view of the mainstream software business models. In fact, I wonder if you have really thought at all about what the software business models are? The vast majority of software written does not go into boxes to be sold at retail stores.

    And if the GPL is this evil, why are successful businesses such as IBM, Red Hat, Sun, Novell and many others either moving towards it or fundamentally based upon it? Because they recognize the power of empowering their customers (or at least, they recognize the power such a philosophy gives their sales and marketing teams...yes, SALES FOLKS LIKE THE GPL! Selling (F)ree software is good business.

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