Why I Don't Use the GPL

by Kirk Bauer

I used to release everything I wrote under the GPL without thinking about it too much. I have, however, come to the conclusion that software licensed under the GPL is far from "free software". As a result, new releases of all my software (AutoRPM, Logwatch, etc.) will be released under the MIT license (similar to the BSD license).

I'm not just trying to start a holy war here; I have very good reasons for my decision and I think that other open-source software developers should consider using licenses other than the GPL.

The GPL attempts to force people and businesses to release their source code. There is nothing wrong with that, except I don't think it qualifies as "free software". I want anybody to be able to do anything they want with my programs and/or its source code. I have no reason to restrict their activities. A majority of companies have already decided that their products will be closed-source even before they start designing them. If a closed-source company decides it could use some open-source code in its product, and if the code is licensed under the GPL, the company will do one of two things: use the open-source code and not tell anybody, or write their own code from scratch.

Both of these options are bad for everybody. With option one, any improvements made to the code will be kept secret and will not help the project as a whole. With option two, the company will now be doing work that has already been done, and it will be done using their proprietary methods instead of the method that is already out there. Also, there will now be one more implementation of the same code with its own bugs, quirks and preferences.

Now, consider the same company looking at the same code released under the BSD or the MIT license. If the code is decent, they will use it in their product. Sure, their product might not be open-source. But, what harm is really done? The open-source project still exists. The company is much more likely to work with the open-source developers to improve the project than if it was trying to cheat the GPL. This can only lead to more users and more developers for the project. In addition, the company will probably want to stay up to date on the open-source code, and the easiest way to do that is to get any changes integrated into the project as a whole.

There are more advantages. The company's product will be easier to modify and customize because it will be using at least some open-source components. Imagine if TiVo could not use Linux because of the GPL--how much harder would it be to hack? Better yet, more open-source code in commercial products means less proprietary technology out there. And the less proprietary technology, the easier it is for people to switch from a proprietary OS to Linux. For example, imagine if Microsoft used ext2 for its filesystem or bash for its shell? If this happened, it would be much easier for (some) applications to be ported to Linux. It also would be much easier for users to convert from Windows to Linux.

I'll admit that if I was a developer for Apache, and Microsoft replaced IIS with Apache one day, I would feel a little cheated. I would feel that I deserved some of the money Microsoft makes off of my project. However, in the long run, I would be aiding in Microsoft's downfall. It would be much easier for a company to replace its MS/Apache web servers with Linux/Apache than it currently is to replace MS/IIS with Linux/Apache. I work at a company that uses MS Exchange for all its e-mail and scheduling needs. If Microsoft would have used an open-source mail server instead of writing their own, it would be a lot easier to replace their NT-based mail servers with Linux ones.

Last, but not least, are the financial benefits for the Open Source community as a whole. A majority of open-source programmers have normal jobs and work on their open-source projects as time permits. Well, wouldn't it be great if more open-source programmers could get paid to work on their open-source projects? Any company that is using your open-source project is a potential employer. Many more companies will use your open-source project if it is released under a truly free license. In my experience, companies that pay you to work on open-source projects want them to stay open-source. They realize that the project has gotten as far as it has because of the Open Source community, and they are more than happy to see the changes they pay you to make applied to the project as a whole.

Overall, I think that open-source developers should release their code under whatever license they feel is best. I do think, however, that releasing your program under the GPL is not much better than Microsoft selling their program to you with a restrictive EULA--in both cases, the copyright holder is telling you what you can and cannot do with their software. I also think the MIT and BSD licenses, in the long run, better serve the interests of the Open Source community.

Kirk Bauer is an avid Linux user and a part of the GT Sport Parachuting Club at Georgia Tech.

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