Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Would Dostoevsky Use the GPL?

To GPL or not to GPL: What Would Dostoevsky Do?

"Thou wouldst go into the world, and art going with empty hands, with some promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand, which they fear and dread- for nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom."
- The Grand Inquisitioner, Book 5, Chapter 5, The Brothers Karamazov

In "The Brothers Karamazov", Dostoevsky wrestles with many grand themes, including the above passage about freedom. The context of the above quote was a tale told through the eyes of Ivan Karamazov about the dangers of freedom and how it can ultimately result in enslavement. Without getting bogged down in details, I think it's pretty fair to say that Dostoevsky had some misgivings about modern perceptions of freedom.

You may be wondering what in God's green earth this has to do with the GPL. Lately, a few folks have written about the wonders of permissive licenses and the death of the GPL and how developers will migrate towards BSD-like licenses because of fewer limitations associated with it. Just as Dostoevsky warned us about the ultimate outcome of total freedom - oppression and totalitarian hegemony - I too worry about the ultimate outcome of permissive licenses like the BSD license. If you are not familiar with the basic differences between the BSD and GPL licenses, I encourage you to read them:

read the GNU GPL license
read the BSD license

To over-simplify the differences: the GPL has more downstream restrictions on how derivative works may be distributed, the primary one being that derivative works must also be licensed under the GPL.

I get nervous whenever large software shops talk up the virtues of a license with fewer protections of developer and user rights. In the linked articles above, there is talk of permissive licenses being the path of least resistance, with the premise that it's "easier" to gravitate towards them. My question is - easier for whom? Easier for the developers or easier for the companies who wish to make use of it without those annoying obligations to the greater free software ecosystem? As is often mentioned by others smarter than me, a scenario where developers gravitate towards permissive licenses makes it easier for companies to avoid community reciprocity.

A free software ecosystem works best when there are some limitations on what can happen downstream from the developer. In the case of the GPL, there are downstream limits on distribution of derivative works, among other things. No, it's not a perfect license, as the arguments over distribution and software as a service bear out. Really, the GPL serves to keep an honest person (or company) honest and is the best means available today for maintaining a vibrant, free software ecosystem over the long-term - and I include commercial as well as non-commercial projects in the mix. You see, as Dostoevsky attempted to show, the best kind of freedom is one with long-term viability, and that requires some restrictions to maintain order. It is with this in mind that I must respectfully disagree with those who proclaim the libertarian roots of free software. Certainly, I can see some libertarian elements of the free software ecosystem espousing the BSD license, but the GPL cannot be considered libertarian. Quite the contrary, it's designed to carry forward a moral framework by which users, developers, and companies can abide. That it seems to work out for commercial and non-commercial entities alike is testament to the genius of one RMS.

Personally, I think this is the right way to do business - and make money, to boot. If you didn't see it, you should definitely read about Marten Mickos' keynote from OSBC on why MySQL uses the GPL. Protecting developer rights isn't just some nebulous hippie ideology - those same rights extend to commercial free software projects, too.

So would Dostoevsky use the GPL? I have not a doubt :) I have written in the past about the long-term trends towards lower software prices and freely distributed software, but there is no such trend towards the protection of rights. That only occurs through the vigilance of the greater free software community.

No comments: