Why I Prefer GPL

A few days ago a discussion started on the MSL-TM mailing list about how we choose the license to use on Castaneum, a software project we are developing (at least, we should be developing).

The MSL-TM is a regional group (from Triângulo Mineiro) of people interested in the using and spreading of free software. I like to define free software as any software product that is patrimony of humanity, thus, every human being has the same rights over it. This is my definition, but there are many definitions of it, seen by many different perspective. The definition regarded as the official is the one given by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), the ones who created the term.

Castaneum is a software system aimed to ease control over who uses the computers from university’s library, that we, from MSL-TM, are developing as an effort to remove, or at least lessen, the use of Microsoft Windows in campus, what, I must say, at least 90% is pirated. I heard from the Data Processing Director himself that the university is overwhelmed by Windows viruses, and our highly restrictive firewall is to refrain the spreading of those viruses to the Internet.

I do not know who first choose to license the project under the GNU General Public License (GPL), but I do know that was me who confirmed this choice, when I submitted the first bit of code into the source code repository, and replaced the notice that said we would be using GPL with the license text itself. Some members of the group where not satisfied with the choice, what started the aforementioned discussion.

To summarize the problem (and those who are familiar with free software may be have heard about it), GPL was not free enough. Every written software is property of its author, due to the copyright law, existing in every country I know. For a software to be free, the author must grant some of its rights to everybody who can get the hands on the software, and the ordinary method of doing so is distributing the software under preëxisting free software license. The problem of GPL, a free software license written by the FSF, is that it prevents anyone who gets the software to changes the terms of how it can be distributed. For instance, if I get a software product and create some other software by modifying the original, what is perfectly OK, since it is free, I can only sell my resulting software under the same GPL terms I got the original. It would actually make my new software free, like the one I got. This kind of restriction is ironically called copyleft: while copyright restricts copying, copyleft ensures possibility of copying.

The voices against GPL says that it is a viral license, because every free software that derives something from a GPL’d software must become GPL’d, so it spread like a virus. These people usually prefer licenses like BSD-style and MIT-style. These free software licenses are much smaller and simple than GPL, and have the important distinction of allowing a software distributed under it to be licensed by another person under other license, provided that their little restrictions are met. The big and relevant practical effect is that one (lets say, Apple) may take a free software (lets say, FreeBSD), change it into something else (lets say, MacOS X) and sell it under its own restrictions, disallowing anyone to have the same rights one had when got the original free software. This practice is known as “closing” the software, what is not a very fortunate choice of words.

So far we have: use BSD if you do not mind having your software “closed” and sold by others. Use GPL if you do not want any “restrictive” software product to be derived from your own software. This later is often misinterpreted. Many do think that GPL will refrain others from selling a software, what is very wrong. Anyone can sell GPL’d software, provided that it continues to be GPL’d. The confusion is justifiable since the prevailing business model of software industry requires that, if a software is sold, the buying part is prohibited to copy and redistribute it. Otherwise, it would make no sense selling it at high prices when anyone could get a legal copy from someone who have bought it before. Obviously, GPL’d software is unsuitable to this business model, because it allows the buyer to redistribute the software freely.

BSD and less restrictive licenses are often used in free software projects supported and developed by big corporations, like Google’s Chromium, that is behind Chrome, Apple’s Darwin, that is behind MacOS X. It would allow them to benefit from the free workforce that can develop around a open source project — as described in The Cathedral and the Bazaar book — while giving them the possibility to use it in it’s own non-free products. The term open source can be regarded as the best methodology available on developing free software.

We can put the matter in another perspective: do you believe non-free software is immoral? If so, use GPL, otherwise, use BSD. This question may sound absurd for people outside free and open source community. One may say: “of course it is moral, it is perfectly legal under copyright law”. If so, I may fell tempted to question the morality of this law in regarding of software, and I am not the only one to do so.

I will not get into details on how copyright law got perverted in regard to artistic works, what somehow motivated the creation of Pirate Party and linked Creative Commons and free culture to free software. I will attain to utilitarian software, what every software, besides games, are.

It was a very dirty trick to fit software into the old copyright law, created to protect the rights of artists over their books, plays, paintings and music. The purpose of the law was to give incentive to authors of such artistic and cultural works to create more. Imagine you are a book writer, if anyone could publish your book without paying you anything, you would feel very bad, and would need another job in order to live, so you would write much less than you would if you could earn money by writing.

While the similarities between software and artistic works were taken into consideration when they decided to include software in that law, namely, that they are easy and cheap to copy, but hard and expensive to create, they left outside one difference of most importance. People consume artwork because they want, but consume software because they need.

From an economic point of view, no one systematically order general artwork, like books, from artists, but people do consume them when they are done. On the other hand, people systematically order software from software makers, in a way that is enough to refrain a programmer from starving. Copyright law has little use in this scenario. Actually, most of the small software companies do survive by creating specific programs for specific clients, and selling software in boxes are distant realities.

From a more human point of view, suppose you are a programmer and created a software that is useful for you. Your neighbour asks you to have it, and costs you nothing to give it to him. Would you give? I am pretty sure most of the people would simply give away. Some may say it is part of human nature: if it costs nothing to help, we simply help. Imagine you have a lit candle, and someone besides you have an unlit candle, would you lit his candle for free?

This simple and intuitive concept is reversed in the corporate “software-in-a-box” business model, where already created software, which has cost virtually zero to reproduce, is sold by obscenely high price compared to its reproduction cost. Why is it so? Why our organizations do such things while individuals tend behave in the opposite direction? Everybody knows that corporations do not abide to morals, but instead to profit. While it is permitted by law and by consumers to do immoral lucrative deeds, they will do. And you can hardly imagine how lucrative, compared to the costs, can be to sell a box containing a copy of a software. It is so lucrative that Microsoft employees need to stop playing golf in the corridors when the money for replacing broken windows is over (and I heard this from a Microsoft employee). It makes me wonder: how many times more rich than the second richest man Bill Gates would be if everyone who uses a pirated copy of Microsoft Office paid what is due to him?

This is the reason I prefer GPL over less restrictive licenses, because the only good reason to choose BSD in place of GPL is to endorse a business model I believe to be immoral. But it is idealistic and unpractical to attain too firmly to this resolution. In an ideal world, every software should be free, thus copyright, if existed, should not apply to software. But we have copyright for software, and now days, to believe software should be free is much more weird than to believe software should not be. It can be very difficult to convince someone that free software actually works until he or she sees, with their own eyes, that it works.

Since the development model of free software relies on external contribution from the parties interested in the software, it may be preferable, in some cases, to have the software distributed in less restrictive licenses. A software under BSD license would give some guarantees to a potential contributor, who would not be afraid of investing in it, as the software could be at any time incorporated the his old business model. Even if the contributor has no plans of “closing” the software, he feels much more incline in helping if there is this possibility.

I would say that our economy is not “psychologically” ready to embrace the idea that, once the software is given to people, it can not be brought back into chains.

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2 Responses to “Why I Prefer GPL”

  1. Matheus Says:

    Nice text. I think it puts a clear light on the subject from the perspective of pragmatism,idealism and morals and I personally agree with that vision about free software.

    Nonetheless, i disagree with the part that justifies the copyright system to books, music, movies and art in general. Although a book may not have zero cost to reproduce, with the technology we have nowadays, it is possible to do so. And even if the cost is not zero, it is not as high as charged by the bookstores and publishers. Ultimately, any price payed for a book or music or an artistic artifact, be it physical or not, is merely symbolic, as i believe art cannot be bought or sold, art has no price.

    • lvella Says:

      The inadequacy of copyright to artistic work is the reason I said “I will not get into details on how copyright law got perverted in regard to artistic works[…]. I will attain to utilitarian software, what every software, besides games, are.” There is much to be said on the subject.

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