Evaluating the state of the GPL

More exploration the GPL's decline

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Over the weekend, the conversation about the decline of GPL-licensed software continued on Twitter and Google Plus, with readers and colleagues chiming in on what could be the cause of the decline, something Matthew Aslett noted in his own blog last week.

There seems to be a few recurring themes in the conversations, that I thought would be useful to highlight.

Some commenters took up the point I made in my article about the GPLv3. Aslett had noted that the decline of GPL and restrictive licenses started around 2007, and I further highlighted that this was right when GPLv3 was released. Was the GPLv3, then, the cause of the decline? There was a quite a bit of discussion about this, and I think ZDNet's Jason Brooks summed up the thinking of this camp pretty well:

"I don't know if GPLv3 has been a significant factor in the shift, but not having an up to date license to function as GPLv2 did can't be helping."

Another thread of exploration was around the "applification" of the software markets. Red Hat's Jan Wildeboer picked up on this early in the conversation:

"Another important point is the 'appification' of the software market. Apps on many platforms (esp. mobile, but not only) need to be almost completely self-contained. For security reasons you cannot install new libraries that all programs can use. This combined with the typical rules of app stores that are hostile towards copyleft adds to decline of GPL use."

Later on, Wildeboer's colleague at Red Hat, Michael Tiemann, also brought up the point.

"I will say that Apple's 'no GPL' policy on the app store, and the incredible success of the app store as a driver for software developers, must be one of the factors. That says nothing about the quality or desirability of the GPL, but rather the consequences of one company's discriminatory policies against it."

I would definitely point at unfriendly Apple store policies as a big reason why some new open source projects are shying away from the GPL now, but 2007, when the decline seems to have first started, was about a year before Apple opened its app store.

On Twitter, yet another Red Hat staffer, Richard Fontana, chimed in that in his experience, 2007 marked the beginning of his disillusionment over the open core business model first popularized by MySQL AB.

"Speculating but personally, I started 2007 assuming MySQL AB biz model was legit, and I ended 2007 severely troubled by it."

(As an aside, clearly I need to be nicer to Red Hat… far too many of them are reading my stuff.)

There are still areas worth exploring here… because I believe that understanding why such a decline is happening can help the free software community revitalize the use of free software.

Naturally, this is even assuming the broader FLOSS community is interested in turning things around. There is a distinct undercurrent in the private conversations I have had on this issue that the free software community has reaped what it has sown, and now needs to pay for its earlier approach.

Understanding that the free software community has indeed stepped on quite a few toes in the past, I would caution the larger community against completely abandoning the principles of free software just because you don't like the people involved.

If free software licenses don't work for you, that's cool; but it may not be a good idea to cheer their overall demise, if that's indeed what's happening.

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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