Why GPL3 Rocks: From Open to Free

The corporate world is equal parts taken with and frightened by open source software.  It represents a huge pool of resources that can be tapped for little or no cost compared to closed source alternatives.   However it also represents a lack of corporate control that can be terrifying to an organization built on the desire for control and profit.

This “lack of control” is more commonly known as freedom.  Freedom is a scary word to a suit, and GPL3 will result in more freedom.  Let’s take a look at why this is a good thing.

There are two main schools of thought in the open source movement, those who adhere to a GPL approach, and those who take the BSD approach.  While different licenses make sense for different products, in general the idea behind the GPL is one of give and take, while BSD is one of give.  A piece of GPL software is made available to the community with the requirement that users of said code have both the freedom to modify it further, and the responsibility to share their modifications with the community.

A BSD license is simply made available.  I can tell you from my experience in the corporate world of software development that BSD licenses are like waving bacon in front of a perpetually hungry dog.  Companies will actively seek out BSD licensed software, customize it for a particular market, and proceed to make bags of money with nothing going back to the community that made their profit possible.

Stopping this exploitation is one of the prime motivating factors in releasing software under a strong license like GPL2.  It makes sure that when someone benefits on top of your hard work, the community benefits as well.

However keeping your work open is only half of the equation.  The other half is keeping your work free.  Not free as in “free beer!”, but free as in “you can do whatever you want with the beer”.  There’s nothing wrong with a private company saying you can only drink their five dollar beer warm from 4 ounce glasses, but you should be able to allow your users to drink their beer warm or chilled from anything they damn well please.  And here is the crux of the GPL3 argument:  If that private company chooses to use your beer instead of brewing their own, they should have to give their users the same freedom.  If not, they can do their own brewing, or pick a different brand of beer to repackage and sell as their own.

GPL3 clarifies that free software is not about the cost of the software, it is about your rights as a user and an author.

That is why companies like TIVO are concerned:

Preedit writes to tell us that those busy folks over at InformationWeek have been scrutinizing yet more SEC filings, and Novell and Microsoft aren’t the only ones concerned about certain provisions in the final draft of GPLv3. TiVo worries too. The problem is that TiVo boxes are Linux-based. They’re also designed to shut down if the software is hacked by users trying to circumvent DRM features. But GPLv3 would prohibit TiVo’s no-tamper setup. “If the currently proposed version of GPLv3 is widely adopted, we may be unable to incorporate future enhancements to the GNU/Linux operating system into our software, which could adversely affect our business,” TiVo warns in a regulatory filing cited by InformationWeek.”

Tough!  If the Linux community decides to move to GPL3, they are choosing to embrace the freedom of their users to modify.  TIVO can stick with old versions or move elsewhere, but to require the authors to give their work away under terms acceptable to a private company is nonsensical and unethical.  If the authors of the Linux kernel decided to charge for corporate licenses, that would be their right.  Why should this be any different?

Companies like TIVO that only use GPL’d open source software because of the loopholes GPL3 would close are not deserving of sympathy or special consideration.  And fundamentally, this isn’t about them anyway.  It is about the rights of the software authors to determine under what conditions their works can be used.  There is something very appealing about saying “You can use my work as long as you do not restrict your user’s freedom”.

GPL3 is about software that is both open and free.

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