The GPL Doesn’t Care About Your Business, in a Good Way (Lit Review)

March 4, 2015


Free Software Foundation / Software Freedom Law Center / Open Source Initiative


Copyleft and the GNU General Public License: A Comprehensive Tutorial and Guide (Ch. 12 Section 1) / Open Source Case for Business


PDF Document / opensource.org


2003-2014 / 2008?

The Gist

Chapter 12 Section 1 is a clarification of what the GPL does and why that gives freedom to businesses that use GPL’d software
The article outlines proven advantages for businesses that use and produce FOSS, plus revenue model examples for such entities
Both make the case for using and producing FOSS work; the section achieves this through countering a common misconception

The Good

  • Boy, Chapter 12 Section 1 is a concise read
  • Actually, they both are!
  • Both documents present pragmatic, legitimate rationales for a symbiotic relationship between businesses and FOSS

The Bad

  • There is a MAJOR typo in Chapter 12 Section 1 of the Copyleft Guide which ruins the understanding of the first sentence.
  • The article seems to forget instances where FOSS didn’t lead to increased security
  • Honestly I couldn’t think of a 3rd bad thing

The Questions

  • I take Freedom 0 of the GPL to mean that the license would not in any way restrict a company from selling a product produced using the software. Is that accurate?
  • Are there any other business models for companies based in FOSS? With Android, Google seems to be doing all four!
  • Would Freedom 0 of the GPL really persuade many businesses to prefer it over a BSD-style license?

FOSS has an incredible impact on the day-to-day lives of many, yet it doesn’t seem to get much credit. Android, the most-used mobile operating system in the world, a product of immense man hours and a ginormous community, is also a community project, co-developed by Google employees and volunteers from across that very world. The various open software technologies that power much of the web: Linux, PHP, MySQL, Python, JavaScript, Chromium, Firefox, et. al. Without the contributions of business and volunteer alike, technology would be much, much bleaker.

It’s no surprise then, that a fair amount of FUD has been circulated about the co-mingling of FOSS and businesses. Both the article and the guide section are effective at disseminating these rumors. FOSS is the backbone of many businesses, usually for the same reasons the article mentions; it has the potential to benefit both the business and the community.

Back to Android, because it is an unusual example of a FOSS business model. They seem to be employing all of the strategies outlined in the article. Google sells its own phones, plus it allows other manufacturers to sell hardware with Android. However, Android is not licensed; the licensing is in particular apps which are not open source but which most consumers expect on an Android device; the Google Mobile Services. Google Play, Android’s app and media marketplace, is not open source, but imagine telling a customer that they couldn’t use Gmail, the Play Store, and other important apps.

That licensing scheme may seem like an affront to the philosophy of open source software, but I disagree. The relationship between the community and the business is definitely still symbiotic. It benefits everyone that runs Android that it is free and open. The GMS restrictions may be lame, but it is in the best interest of any business to make money. That is where the greatest schism between businesses and open source lies. Many businesses have found ways to alleviate that divide; more doing so would certainly benefit us.

Rating: 4/5

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