FSF: Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive

Here's some constructive ways the FSF can push for the GPL

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After deriding the Free Software Foundation about their messaging tactics, I found a developer's personal essay that has a better message about free software.

Recently I have been complaining about the Free Software Foundation's current tactic to rip apart any software or software development model that doesn't conform to their ideals.

My problems with the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has been simplistically condensed to either being a knee-jerk reaction to anything the FSF has to say, or else part of a broader conspiracy to hate all free software.

Neither of which is the case. Between permissive and restrictive licenses, I like them all--but the restrictive, copyleft licenses like those in the GPL family resonate with me more than the permissive BSD-style licenses that proliferate within the open source community. When it comes down to it, the sense of shared responsibility appeals to me as a parent, because taking responsibility and appealing to the greater good is something that I have tried to teach my children. The permissive licenses don't prevent that, but they don't exactly encourage this sort of behavior, either.

No. My arguments with the FSF are not about philosophy, they are about tactics. This summer the FSF took the developers of Android to task on the issue of possible non-compliance of the GPLv2--and issue that's been raised several times by IP attorney Edward J. Naughton and Florian Mueller, patent blogger and now Microsoft consultant. The FSF's goal, it seemed, was to capitalize on this wave of FUD leveled against Android and Google to advocate the relicensing of the Linux kernel to GPLv3, based on Naughton's and Mueller's contention that the Linux (and therefore Android) kernel's use of the GPLv2 made it more difficult for license violators to come back into compliance.

Then, last month, FSF founder Richard Stallman had an article printed in The Guardian addressing the concern that's been burning in all of minds: is Android free software? His answer, of course, was no, but Stallman took lots of potshots against GPLv2 and open source software along the way.

(Stallman's comments on Steve Jobs I'll leave alone, since he made those comments on his personal site.)

The tactics of the FSF has been to jump on board any cause they can find that they can spin into a way to promote their own goals. Open source software, which the organization seems to find especially abhorrent, is a favored target.

My concern--indeed, my utter frustration--has been with this constant, combative tone from the FSF. The "our way or the highway" approach is tired, and old. And I have called for them to try to deliver a more constructive message.

But--and here's my own failing--I have not been able to articulate what that positive message would be. It's very easy to make a call for change, but it's frustrating not to be able to constructively deliver an alternative to use.

Until today.

This morning, I read a really well-written, personal essay from Zed Shaw, a Python developer who has licensed his Lamson SMTP server under the GPL. His essay details why he made this decision for his project.

So that should be noted right up front: Shaw didn't go into this with the intent of writing a manifesto for the community. But while his arguments are personal, and work for him, I believe they are also excellent, non-partisan talking points that we should all be using whenever we look at a license to use.

Shaw's decision is deeply grounded in his experience with Mongrel web server, which is licensed under the permissive Ruby License. Shaw's experiences with Mongrel were less than positive, a fact he attributes to how Mongrel users were taking, modifying, and using his code and giving him little to no credit for the project:

"Sadly, none of Mongrel's success mattered for me. Even though everyone was using my software, the vast majority of firms using Mongrel were startups. The last thing a startup wants to admit is that they don't own their intellectual property. They want everyone, especially the VCs and investors, to believe that they're all geniuses who 'innovated' everything they run."

Under the Ruby License, this kind of behavior was permitted, since there was little reason for downstream developers coding in Mongrel to acknowledge the work of Shaw or his project.

Shaw also points out the explosion of venture capital funding that rose up in the early 2000s as another source of trouble. With open sourced permissively licensed software, technology firms and their VC investors could show off a lot of technology with few or any legal strings attached. Shaw doesn't object to this practice… he understands that there are companies that need to make money in this manner.

"However, the unwritten contract between firms and open source developers is now gone," Shaw writes "I have no reason to give them unrestricted use of my software since they are only interested in turning my software into a hot IPO 2–5 years from now."

Right here, we have two solid arguments that the FSF could use to highlight the advantages of copyleft licenses. Shaw isn't tearing open source down to make his case; he's highlighting why open source licenses aren't working for him.

Shaw's motivation is also more personal: not only does he perceive his software being openly used without credit given to him, he also asserts he's been the victim of criticism from developers who allege Shaw can't code in order to inflate themselves and their talents.

Using the GPL for Lamson, then, is Shaw's way of forcing the acknowledgement of his creation.

"I use the GPL to keep you honest. You now have to tell your bosses you're using my gear. And it will scare the piss out of them. Good. Because I have a solution to that too."

Shaw's solution? He will give the software away for non-commercial use (such as to other open source projects), but commercial users will need to pay to use Lamson.

Shaw's closing of his essay delivers another argument for the FSF to use.

"My final reason for using the GPL is I think my projects have value, and I want people who use them to perceive that value in them. I think they are so valuable that I'm willing to put a complex untested legal document down as my bet to their utility. If I wanted it easy I would simple BSD license it and everyone would use it."

If I were offering unsolicited advice to the FSF--oh, wait, I am--then I would urge them to read Shaw's essay in its entirety and internalize the points he's making. Using free software licenses has real and practical value for developers, and it's those points that should be emphasized.

I would also, for the sake of fairness, come back to the Open Source Initiative and ask them how developers can get a benefit from using open source licenses.

Each philosophy has strong pros and cons going for it, and it should be points like Shaw's that are the starting point for a reasonable discussion on the merits of free and open source software.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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