Friday, November 04, 2005

GPL 3.0 Will Highlight the FSF's Misdirection

The drafting of the GNU General Public License's second major revision is to begin in the near future. This third version will be good for solidifying what the GNU Project, the Free Software Foundation, and Richard Stallman, the man behind it all, truely stand for in the area of software users' rights. The next revision will be good for the FSF, but bad for nearly everyone who uses their license.

The GNU GPL has four main clauses, if you look at it in a simplified manner.
  1. The right to use the software for any reason
  2. The right to my copies of the software
  3. The right to modify the software
  4. The right to redistribute the original or modified versions of the software
Number four is pretty much the gotcha for most people. It is what keeps many companies, who are interested in open source and free software, away from using the GNU GPL, and sometimes for releasing source code at all. Who wants to release code to a community who think they should have the right to pass it along to those who did not pay for it?

This last clause is the one I've always had trouble agreeing with. I think I should be able to make copies of software, if I have a desktop and a laptop, for example. I should be able to use it for anything, because if I bought it, that copy is mine. If they want to limit the warranty to certain uses, that's OK, but they shouldn't limit me to certain uses. There may be something I don't like about the software, or maybe I don't entirely trust it. In either case, I should have the option to see and modify the source code, to ensure I know what it is doing, or that it is doing what they say it is. But, they worked hard making that software and need to make a living to feed their families and pay off that house, so what right do I or should I have to say to my pal, who wants a copy of the software, "Sure, I'll send you a copy. Don't worry about buying it for yourself!".

I believe the forth clause is a mistake, not only in that Richard Stallman keeps it in there, but that he brought it into the license in the first place. There is some history behind this opinion that is very important to the issue at hand.

When the GNU General Public License was first created, and back in the days when Richard Stallman was jumpstarting the Free Software movement and founding the Free Software Foundation, the software and technology world was a very different picture. When the first users of Stallman's Emacs wanted to acquire a copy, they didn't download the source or prepackaged RPMs from the FSF website, or their distributions automatic package manager. They wrote him a letter, including a blank data tape and money to return it through post, and Stallman would copy the source code onto the tape and mail it back to them. Those days, I don't think there had to be much worry if someone redistributed your software, because distributing it was so difficult for both you and for them.

What this begs us to ask, however, is, "why is this still a GPL clause and why does anyone think its essential?" All of the other clauses of the GPL are enough. That last clause brings about all the problems. User's should have every right to make their own personal copies, to modify source code, and to use the software in any way. But copyright law is there for a reason, and I want to pay of that new car. Redistribute patches, if you'd like, but developers who can't or won't do it all for free, deserve to be compensated for their work.

And, yes, I know there are ways to make money on GPL software, but it much more difficult and risky. Developers deserve the same kind of per-consumer compensation as creators in any other medium.

The problem with the GPL's new version is that the changes will only strengthen this problem's hold on the GPL. More provisions will be put in place to ensure the users' rights of redistribution and the circumvention of the developers' rights to control the distribution of their own intellectual property.

I know what you're saying, "So, don't use the GPL!" And, I won't. My problem with all this is that many do and will continue to use the GPL misguidedly, and that the GPL symbollically stands for the concept of free software and open source licenses, so this huge error just reflects badly upon the whole community. Stallman may have started it, but at this rate he'll lead the movement to its end in his blindness and inability to admit that, though he had a good idea, he made one or two mistakes in the initial executions of that idea. Idealism is nice when you're ideals are grounded, but dangerous when you follow them simply because they are your ideals.

Rethink what your thought, and always make sure you still know what you're doing.

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