Eric S. Raymond is one of the three big figures in open source, together with Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman. During a talk for the Long Island Linux User Group, he made some interesting statements about the GPL, namely that the GPL is no longer needed due to the way the open source movement works.
Eric S. Raymond questioned whether or not we still need reciprocal licenses like the GPL in a world where abusing open source code by making it closed source is pretty much a death sentence for your company. “One of my heretical opinions is that we worry way too much about licensing. And in particular; I don’t think we really need reciprocal licensing. I don’t think we need licenses like the GPL, that punish people for taking code closed-source,” he said. He goes on to explain why.
According to ESR, open source development is the superior way of developing software because you get more out of your investments with open source development than with closed source development. Because of this, ESR argues, it is generally a bad idea to take open source code, make it closed source, and develop a business around that, because the original open source product will still be developed, but at greater speeds and efficiency than can be maintained by the small, closed-source team.
Consequently, ESR states, the market will punish you for taking open source code and close it up. It’s simply never a successful strategy, he argues, and as such, how much sense does it make to have reciprocal licenses like the GPL? “That is why I don’t think you really need GPL or a reciprocal licenses anymore,” he said, “It is attempting to prevent the behavior that the market punishes anyway.” He added that the BSD license is a good alternative to the GPL.
He takes it one step further by stating:
That attempt has a downside, the downside is that people, especially lawyers, especially corporate bosses look at the GPL and experience fear. Fear that all of their corporate secrets, business knowledge, and special sauce will suddenly be everted to the outside world by some inadvertent slip by some internal code. I think that fear is now costing us more than the threat of [inaudible]. And that is why I don’t we need the GPL anymore.
That’s a pretty heavy thing to say, especially for someone so synonymous with the open source movement. The article linked to above gives the example of Mac OS X as a successful attempt at taking something open and making it closed, but this is a faulty assumption. Apple has not closed off any code; everything open they ever used is freely downloadable, as well as the changes Apple has made. It’s just that in the case of Darwin, no one really cares.
It’s a controversial opinion by ESR, but he does make a very compelling argument. The GPL won’t go anywhere any time soon of course, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question its usefulness.