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 @ 8:55pm


    Source code does not equate free speech, no matter how you try to sugar coat it. It is the next to final product in an investment (the binary object being the actual final product). Just because it can be replicated ad infinitum does not lessen its worth any. And the alturistic sentiment of "free as in speech" is so Star Trek in nature, that its scary.

    The GPL is not about free speech. RMS describes it as speech vs. beer in order to get across a point: the source code under the GPL is not constrained in use by the holder of the software. That is, if someone acquires the software (given, downloaded, paid for, ...) then they have the right to the source code and can do whatever they like (*) with that code. You have the program, tinker with it to your heart's content; you are in control.

    (*) with the caveat that the recipient of GPL'ed software must themselves abide by the GPL when they distribute any derived software.

    As a creator of GPL'ed software, I have a number of current options for generating revenue from that software...and there are many, many more ways that will be invented as society progresses.

    Those who push against the flexibility and power of the GPL typically do so because it goes against their pre-conceived notion as to what "making money from software" means. Realize that the vast majority of people making money from the creation of software do it at cost (of equipment, labour, profit, etc...), not through massively underpriced, massively volumed sales.

    Many people today make a good living from the creation of GPL'ed software. Most of those people are not out to have the financial success of a typical s/w CEO. Most are happy to support a good lifestyle (an incredible lifestyle when compared with 95% of the world's population), put in a productive work life, retire quite comfortably at a reasonable age. The GPL offers many advantages to make this a reality.

    The GPL does not sit well with people who have a modicum of skills beyond the average computer user, who earn success through lucky breaks or deceiving business practices, or who look to take advantage of an existing hostage customer base.

    But, those people don't sit well with me nor likely their potential customers either.

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