On GPL and the Free Software stack

Once in a while developers will complain about GPL libraries and how it would be much better if the authors of those libraries had placed them under some more permissive license, like BSD. The only people this would be “better” for is the whining developers who would then receive a library with no legal strings attached which they could integrate in their products.

I’m taking a completely different standpoint myself. In my opinion it is important to have a completely open stack of software that cannot be destroyed. I may not use it for everything, and it doesn’t have to excel at everything (or even anything), but I want it there for a lot of reasons. Here are some:

  • It is our universal escape hatch. If MS and Apple tank tomorrow, we still have a stable stack of software to fall back on for almost everything. Web servers will continue to receive security updates. Web browsers will still be updated. Libraries will get improved performance.
  • If software patents and other policies make it impossible to work on software (horror!), what software do you think the rebels leading the revolution will use?
  • If Free Software appears in a commercial offering, say like GNU Bash in Mac OS X, I know I can on hack it if I feel the need. I also know that the work I do will not be wasted because Bash will outlive Mac OS X by many, many years.
  • Computers can be a platform for expressing and sharing ideas. If we maintain Free software tools and technologies it will benefit the advancement of computer science in the long run. How many programmers had GCC as their first C compiler? How many have studied the Linux kernel?

So when a developer places their work under GPL I’m very accepting of the time they donated, even if it isn’t exactly what I need or if it isn’t the ultimate answer to whatever the question was. I consider them contributors to this idealistic world backup plan – small-scale indirect philanthropy in an alternate ecosystem.

Of course, since most of this work is being driven by passion, the process is very much hit and miss. It is unlikely we will need those 30 half-finished XML libraries and failed attempts at GUI libraries in 10 years. It is just as unlikely that we will have a perfect Linux desktop by then. But try to disregard that and look at the bigger picture before you curse at GPL software the next time.


2 thoughts on “On GPL and the Free Software stack

  1. This has already been hashed over by sharper minds than mine, but I’m one of the developers you speak of, and yes you’re right… GPL software is probably good for humanity.

    However, compared to BSD it’s viral and arguably less open and generally less useful since you can only use it in conjunction with compatibly licensed code. And obviously that’s why it’s annoying to find something useful only to find it’s got a GPL license slapped on it. Especially if it’s something small like a command line parser!

    • Absolutely, silliness exists in the GPL ecosystem too. That command line parser isn’t going to save the whales 🙂

      But stuff like having a good, stable reference compiler like GCC is another thing entirely and something I don’t think we’d have if GCC was merely under BSD license as it would be too attractive to fork & tivoize.

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