Does the GPL "force other software authors to use the same poverty license"?

In June of 1999, Daemon News published an article by Pedro F. Giffuni titled "The GPL vs. Capitalism", in which Mr. Giffuni asserts that the GPL is evil, and that releasing GPL'd code is
forcing other software writers to use the same poverty license.

It seems strange that Mr. Giffuni believes that by giving something away (under any license, GPL or otherwise), that I can somehow force other software writers to do anything.

Here's the response I emailed to him:

Dear Mr. Giffuni,

Your article on the evil of the GPL was certainly interesting, and Mike Cheponis has been trying to convince me of the same thing. In fact, he an I were discussing this very point last night, and I suggested to him that he should write an article "GPL Considered Harmful". This morning he let me know that you'd already done it.

Anyhow, although I disagree with your conclusion, I'm not going to argue about that. But I disagree with your premise about "GPL forcing other software writers to use the same poverty license".

I have released software I've written under the GPL, and others have modified it. The modifications come in two categories: people who make small improvements, and people who make large improvements. In the former case, I don't see any point in allowing people that make small improvements to distribute the code under a more restrictive license.

In the case of large changes and additions, it may seem that I am forcing the GPL onto them. However, in actuality they have several choices. They can release their enhanced version under the GPL, which is what I prefer. They can negotiate an alternative license with me. So far no one has done that. But they always have a third alternative: don't use my GPL'd code as a base for development at all.

Now let's look at what happens if I release my source code under a less restrictive license (perhaps the BSD license sans the credit clause). I release foomaker 1.0 under that license, and you are happy because I'm not restricting your rights in the manner of the GPL. You start working on a new barulator feature for it. Meanwhile, Fred writes a fromitzer feature. Perhaps both of these enhancements are very good, and consist of non-trivial amounts of code. But now someone (perhaps even you) decides that you want the software with both the barulator and the fromitzer. Suppose that Fred has decided that because he invested a lot of effort into that code, he's unwilling to give out source for it. Under the unrestrictive license, he is entitled to do that. But now the situation is that there is a fancy version of the program with the fromitzer feature, which only Fred benefits from. He's benefitting from both my original code and his added feature, but other people like you who would like to use that feature are at his mercy.

Perhaps that's how you think things should be.

But let's look at the situation with the GPL:

I write the base code, and release it under the GPL.
You write the barulator feature, and releases it under the GPL.

Fred has several choices:

Fred thinks the GPL is too restrictive, so he doesn't write the fromitzer feature at all.
Fred writes his own software, not using my base code, includes his fromitzer feature, and releases it under any license he likes.

So my question is, how can the GPL case have any worse outcome than the non-GPL case? In the non-GPL case, Fred writes code for a fromitzer feature, but won't give the source code out. In the GPL case, Fred either doesn't write the code at all, or writes all new code that isn't GPL'd. In either case, he doesn't give out source code. So who benefits from the non-GPL license? Certainly I (as the original author) don't, and the general public doesn't (unless they buy object code from Fred). Only Fred benefits.

At this point you should be thinking, "But that's the point of capitalism! Fred should be able to benefit from his work."

Personally I have strong free-market leanings, so I would even agree with such statements.

BUT... there is no rational basis for any party to demand that I must help Fred to benefit from my work, and that I must plan my licensing around Fred's desires. In fact, such a demand would amount to slavery.

If I choose to GPL my code, it isn't because I'm evil, but because I want end users to derive the maximum possible benefit from my generosity, and that of anyone who is willing to GPL their addons. Fred is welcome to take my GPL'd code and attempt to profit from it, subject to the terms of the GPL. There are plenty of examples of companies making money using GPL'd code; Red Hat and Cygnus come to mind. If Fred doesn't like the GPL terms, he doesn't have to use my code. I'm not forcing anything on him; if he chooses to use GPL'd code, that is a voluntary decision on his part.


Back to Eric's home page

Last updated June 6, 1999

Copyright 1999 Eric Smith.

Valid HTML 3.2! check now