Grokking the GPL (Lit Review)

February 9, 2015


Free Software Foundation / Software Freedom Law Center


Copyleft and the GNU General Public License: A Comprehensive Tutorial and Guide (Ch. 1)


PDF Document



The Gist

This chapter explains how the Free Software Foundation (FSF) defines what software is free and what is not.
People commonly use the phrase “open source” which is a step in the right direction, but ignores the political and social aspects of truly free and open source software.
The chapter goes on to explain how free software can be mutually beneficial to commercial and non-commercial interests, and how software freedom is reconciled with society’s laws (copyrights)

The Good

  • This chapter clarifies terms newcomers to the FOSS scene might not be privy to, including copyleft and the notion of free as in freedom.
  • A common misconception is that the GPL prevents making money on the software; the chapter does a great job addressing this.
  • Many people don’t understand why an author would want a copyleft requirement on something they want to release for free. This article makes good cases for the importance of that.

The Bad

  • Esoteric references…I know what the GNU Compiler Collection is and its importance in the FOSS community, but some people reading might not.
  • Not enough detail about copyright outside the USA.
  • Given its publisher, the chapter seems to discourage licenses on the weak copyleft side of the spectrum.

The Questions

  • Are certain types of software better suited to licenses with differing degrees of copyleft?
  • How could somebody pursue a copyright violator outside of their legal jurisdiction?
  • Is the freedom of code really analogous to the openness of law?

Thanks to the rise of the Internet, collaborative software development has had an unprecedented explosion in popularity. Never before have we had such opportunity to explore, share, use, and learn from the work of others, and never with such ease. Chapter 1 of this reading cites Samba as an example of software that started as a non-commercial hobby growing into a widely-used piece of software on both sides of the commercial coin.

Git, which implements concepts indispensable in today’s software development environment, was initially the creation of one man. Linus Torvalds, who also happens to be the creator of Linux. Perhaps unsurprising to a reader of Chapter 1 of this text, his decision to make the software free by releasing it under the GNU GPL (like Linux), has facilitated countless individuals’ involvement in maintaining and improving it. And just as the text predicts, both individuals and corporations improve and profit from the enforced freedom of the GNU GPL license. The fact that Linux and Git are GPL’d hasn’t stopped them from being used commercially, nor has it prevented profit from their use.

There is but one thing I found troubling in this chapter: basing the rationale for making software open on the openness of law. In this passage, Lawrence Lessig makes great points about the need for transparency for a society to be free, and how society can benefit from code being similarly free. But law is different from code. Laws are not quite creative things in the same way as music or film or video games, and they are certainly not industrial things like the secret formula for Coca-Cola. For example, the 4th Amendment says that a warrant is necessary for search in most cases in the USA. Since this is a law and we all are governed by laws, it is taught in every school. Contrastingly, the code for rendering clouds in Adobe Photoshop is fully closed and proprietary. The effect optional software openness has on society is in no way comparable to the imperative openness of laws. Also, just because some code is proprietary doesn’t mean the FOSS community can’t create a suitable alternative.

What should be taken away from this chapter is how important software freedom is to us as a society and that means actually understanding why we should not only set our code free, but protect our rights when doing so. Computers continue to invade our lives, so we should strive to make them as free and open as possible. Of course it should be mentioned that the doctrine of copyright means it is the creator’s choice. At the same time as I recognize the benefits of FOSS, I’m a strong privacy and property advocate, so if I want to keep something closed, I have every right to do so. And I have in the past. Yet, there are so many reasons to make it open. FOSS doesn’t mean we can’t profit, it just means we can all benefit.

Rating: 4/5

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