GPL, copyleft use declining faster than ever

Data suggests a sharper rate of decline, which raises the question: why?

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A new analysis of licensing data shows that not only is use of the GPL and other copyleft licenses continuing to decline, but the rate of disuse is actually accelerating.

That was the conclusion of Matthew Aslett's analysis of recent data from Black Duck Software, which shows that while use of the GPL, LGPL, and AGPL set of copyleft licenses dominates free and open source projects, that use is still on the decline.

"The GPL family now accounts for about 57% of all open source software, compared to 61% in June," Aslett wrote. More troubling for copyleft advocates, though, could be the projection Aslett and the 451 Group make based on the data.

"...[I]f the current rate of decline continues, we project that the GPL family of licenses will account for only 50% of all open source software by September 2012."

Looking at the graph to which Aslett refers, you can see how that projection is a logical one to make. You can also see what developers are licensing their projects under instead: permissive licenses such as the MIT, Apache (ASL), BSD, and Ms-PL group of licenses.

This is not new news, really, since The 451 Group reported on this in June. But the acceleration of the rate of decline (also clearly visible on the graph) is definitely a new trend.

What's interesting to me is Aslett's initial analysis into the causes of this ongoing decline:

"The analysis indicated that the previous dominance of strong copyleft licenses was achieved and maintained to a significant degree due to vendor-led open source projects, and that the ongoing shift away from projects controlled by a single vendor toward community projects was in part driving a shift towards more permissive non-copyleft licenses."

I fired off a query to Aslett about why he thinks this is happening. What is driving this move away from the GPL?

"I don't think projects are moving away from GPL, but that new vendors are choosing community approaches enabled by permissive licenses, rather than attempting to control projects using the GPL," he replied.

This is a very interesting distinction, since initially I think I misunderstood Aslett's analysis to mean that communities were moving away from copyleft, which is incorrect on my part. Instead, Aslett is pointing to vendor use of community-based processes and governance (such as foundations) to hold projects together, rather than using the restrictive GPL licenses to be the glue the binds a project's development.

"Our research shows the formation of vendors around projects with strong copyleft licenses peaked in 2006, whereas formation of vendors around projects with permissive licenses has been rising rapidly since 2007 (by formation I mean either a literal formation in the case of a startup, or the first engagement with OSS for established vendor)," Aslett added.

Now, Aslett does not come out and say this, so this is all me: one thing that occurs to me is the formal release date of the GPLv3 in June 2007. Was the creation of the GPLv3 and the sometimes contentious discussion that led up to it a driver for vendors to shift towards permissive licenses?

[Author's Note: This source and author of the next reference has been updated to the actual author. The source originally cited by myself and Aslett had apparently plagiarized the actual article, written by Bruce Byfield.]

That is very much unclear, but there is this to think about: the article from Bruce Byfield that actually inspired Aslett to re-examine the Black Duck data this month.

"7 Reasons Why Free Software Is Losing Influence" is a piece in which Byfield dispassionate examines the reasons he believes free software (and, by extension, copyleft licensing) is in decline. Byfield makes very interesting points, and I invite you to read the article.

The point I'd like to explore is Byfield's take on GPLv3, which he refers to as "The GPL Version Split."

"Before the license revision, the GPL helped to unify the community, and the FSF, as the creator and enforcer of the GPL, had a strong presence in the community. Now, GPLv2 is viewed as the version favored by open source supporters, GPLv3 as the version for free software advocates--and not only does the whole free software philosophy looks weaker, but the split between open source and free software is wider than ever."

I think that it may go farther than that. There is strong evidence that since the formation of the GPLv3, FLOSS opponents have used it as a wedge to drive into the heart of the FLOSS community, as well as sow confusion about the goals and benefits of free software in general. Indeed, even the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has been known to make use of FUD to further their bias towards the GPLv3.

It is not fair, nor accurate, to lay all of the blame on the FSF's or GPLv3's feet. Vendors have a whole host of other reasons to shift to the permissive/community model. But I wonder if the split of the GPL, as Byfield calls it, may have been an initial catalysts that made vendors start looking around a bit more for open source licensing alternatives, and from there it just snowballed.

The real question is: how will the FSF and free software advocates turn this around? Or can they? Are we heading for a world where free software is no longer the dominant force in FLOSS?

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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