posted by Vincent Mortellaro on Sun 30th Mar 2003 23:55 UTC
IconThe GPL is a wonderful license for community works, for the basic reason that it starts out with the premise that the point is the source code. The program, someone is trying to make. Not the programmer, not the programmer's company, or the programmer's pay check. What it basically says is that there is no way for one to act as a stop-gap to the flow of code development and the organic way that code tends to build upon itself.

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This in theory has the useful effect of making all code licensed this way open for people to see and use - provided they do the same with their code if it includes or links to GPL'd code. The easiest way for me to think about this usually is to relate GPL'd code to a public park. It's there for everyone to use. One can volunteer his or her time and help keep the part clean. If they want they can get permission to add new trees to the park or just donate money to help pay for new side ways for the grass to be cut. Its a place that everyone can enjoy, but that you can't take with you. You never see people taking a piece of sod or a tree home with them from the park. Thats not allowed and in most cases considered stealing since it technically doesn't belong to anyone person as an individual.

Trying to make a software business around GPL'd software then is about as difficult as it is to make a public park in to a profitable business. Now, for a private say corporate park its much easier - they can rent it out for public events, because its a park the corporation owns. The company could raise money by selling some of the trees in their park, because again they own the trees. For the public park this isn't the case, one can't inherently make money off the park itself. An individual can't rent it out - its not that person's park to lease. Someone can't sell the trees, they aren't that person's to sell. Instead an individual ends up making money indirectly from the park. One could sell birdseed to people so they can feed the birds. One can sell drinks or food to people walking thru the park. One could even be a park performer, but all of these are "services" they are things you do to add value to the experience of the park - but they are not part of the park. Or, you could sell 'first aid' support if a kid hurts its knee while playing in the park.

Take this back to software and this is exactly how most companies are working. They make their real money off of services or things that add value to the GPL'd software. Red Hat sells support. Ximian, Lycoris, Lindows, all try to sell their ease of use. IBM tries to sell its hardware as way to maximize your GPL experience. None of them specifically target making money off of the GPL software itself. Its always here's the GPL'd software itself + our service to you which they are charging you for. When one pays for Ximian, Lycoris, or Lindows they have a tendency to think they payed for GPL'd software. Thats not really the case - the software is out there for free, you can find it all over the place. What you really paid for is their specific way of bundling the software. The ease of use they add to it, the prettiness of it, the cute box they wrapped it in with the huge instruction manual they made.

From what I've seen so far, the GPL makes it very difficult to make money off of the software itself. Rather it makes the software a kind of charity donation. Leaving you to find an indirect method to squeeze cash from the sap of the code you just donated to the park. This is merely speculation by me, but what I see is this shift where programmers put all this effort in and create code and then donate it - which pretty much eliminates them from directly making any money off the work they have already put in. Instead they can only make money on new work - the services they add like tech support. This GPL programmer situation reminds me another situation. In the book Animal Farm, the animals are working harder than they used to before and are getting less in return because they believe they are doing something for a greater good - while others are taking advantage of them. This seems to be what is starting to happen here. The programmers put in all this work which they can't directly make money off of while other service providers can take advantage of it free of charge. Like IBM - they get to sell hardware, they don't have to be liable for the softwares defects nor do the GLP programmers don't get a dime of the millions they make off of the programmers work.

About the Author:
"Vincent is currently a mac user, so most people won't/don't listen to him. But he has spent time using most of the popular versions of linux for various server tasks, or to see if they are good desktop operating systems. However for most of his simple servers he uses windows since growing up with it; he knows its quirks better."

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