Does GPL still matter?

As open source gets more commercial, GPL's idealism is overridden by developers' business needs

Jeff Haynie reached a crossroads last summer. Haynie, CEO of Appcelerator, a firm that develops open source cross-platform application development software, made a decision filled with implications for his company's future. That decision: to toss away his upcoming product's Gnu General Public License (GPL), the best-known and most popular free software license, in favor of what he viewed as a more business-friendly alternative. "We initially started the product with a GPLv3 license and we decided last summer to move the license to Apache," Haynie says.

Haynie isn't the only business-oriented open source community member to have made, or at least pondered, a move to a GPL-free future. A June study conducted by Black Duck Software, an open source development tools vendor, shows that the Free Software Foundation's GPL -- although far and away still the dominant open source licensing platform -- could be starting to slide. The survey found that despite strong growth in GPLv3 adoption, the percentage of open source projects using GPL variants dropped from 70 to 65 percent from the previous year.

[ Stay up to speed with the open source community via InfoWorld's Technology: Open Source newsletter. | InfoWorld's Savio Rodrigues explains why software vendors tend to stick with GPL. ]

Before deciding to pull away from GPL, Haynie says Appcelerator surveyed some two dozen software vendors working within the same general market space. To his surprise, Haynie saw that only one was using a GPL variant. "Everybody else, hands down, was MIT, Apache, or New BSD," he says.

"The proponents of GPL like to tell people that the world only needs one open source license, and I think that's actually, frankly, just a flat-out dumb position," says Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, one of the many organizations now offering an open source license with more generous commercial terms than GPL.

Alternative licenses offer liberal code distribution terms (which means more revenue potential) and more clearly written licenses -- and they have eager and qualified developer communities, advocates say.

GPL limits developers' ability to make money

As the open source market continues marching away from its roots -- the lone developer who creates a useful product as a labor of love -- appreciation for the idealism that lies at the GPL's heart is diminishing. Businesses that view open source development as a path to a profitable future rather than as an altruistic mission are increasingly balking at what they view as the license's excessively restrictive aspects concerning code improvements.

Open software license usage: License and % of apps using it

Gnu General Public License (GPL) 2.0: 50.1%

Gnu Lesser General Public License (LGPL) 2.1: 9.6%

Artistic License (Perl): 8.7%

BSD License 2.0: 6.3%

Gnu General Public License (GPL) 3.0: 5.1%

Apache License 2.0: 3.9%

MIT License: 3.8%

Code Project Open 1.02 License: 3.4%

Mozilla Public License (MPL) 1.1: 1.3%

Microsoft Public License (MS-PL): 1.0%

Source: Black Duck Software

A big reason for the decline of GPL is that its terms severely limit a licensee's ability to remarket any code improvements. The claims that Eclipse's Milinkovich makes for the Eclipse license is typical of the GPL alternatives: "Our licensing is very much based on the notion that we want to be commercially friendly. ... The typical business model in the Eclipse ecosystem takes technology from the Eclipse community, adds commercial value on top of that, and commercially license the results."

The GPL effectively prevents businesses from fully reaping the financial benefits of any code enhancements they bring to a product, says Van Lindberg, a lawyer specializing in open source issues at Haynes and Boone. "Essentially, the rule with GPL is that the code that comes in GPL, and any improvements that are directly built on that, are to stay [in] GPL," he says. "You can sell code that is GPL'd; you just need to give certain guarantees and rights to people who receive the code, including the ability for them to pass it on without cost."

Appcelerator's Haynie notes that his company's decision to jump from GPL to Apache was made after many weeks of serious research and thought. "The move was made strictly on a business-case basis," he says. Haynie says that Apache removed GPL's code distribution roadblock without adding any significant disadvantages. "It furthered what we believed is our ultimate model of monetization," he says, particularly "because of the explicit patent language in the license, which gave us a little bit more [advantage] from a legal standpoint."

"The GPL guys are very much focused on a particular ideology about free software, and all software must be free, even if they have to force it to be free," Milinkovich says. "There are some people who almost look at it as a religious discussion -- the idea that there is only one set, or valid, open source license," echoes Jim Jagielski, chairman of the Apache Software Foundation, an alternative license provider.

The GPL was conceived as a way to ensure complete redistribution of intellectual property, notes Howard Kiewe, an analyst at Info-Tech research group. "That's no longer a suitable arrangement for many business-oriented licensees," he says.

[ Editor's note: InfoWorld tried to interview Richard Stallman, who runs the Free Software Foundation that created and manages the GPL, on this issue, but he demanded control of what we published, so we declined. ]

Other benefits of GPL alternatives

Jagielski says that beyond friendly business terms, most alternative licenses offer the benefit of being written more clearly and precisely than GPL. "There's some concern that the GPL, as written, is just a little bit hard to understand," he says. "You need to worry much more about when GPL kicks in and when it doesn't and that means, of course, that you might need to get the legal department involved."

Jagielski claims that Apache's licensing terms are written to be comprehensible to people with no legal training. "It's very, very easy to read and understand, so it's a less risky license for external companies to use," he says.

While license terms are critical, open source developers must also ponder other considerations, including the scope and depth of each license platform's respective development community. "The reason why these other licenses are gaining traction is because of the community that has evolved around them, almost as much -- or even more than -- features of the licenses themselves," says attorney Lindberg.

Thanks to its longevity and market dominance, GPL has a very large, deep, and active developer community. But other licensors are catching up. "I think that you're starting to see a slow push back from some of these other licensing communities, where they're starting to prove that they can build, establish, and maintain a strong community without the reciprocal provision of the GPL," Lindberg says. "That's opening the door for those who are more comfortable with these more permissive licenses, like Apache and Eclipse, to exercise their preferences."

GPL changes would hinder commercial cloud-based apps

To force the free distribution of source code, the GPL requires publishers to place the source code on the disk they distribute their applications on. Under GPL, "you've got to give it away for free, and you've got to give the source code away for free as well," says analyst Kiewe.

The cloud gave developers a loophole, since software provisioned over the Internet such as through SaaS isn't actually distributed, just run from a central server accessible over the Internet. That means there's no need to distribute the source code for GPL cloud applications. Thus, many cloud developers still use the original GPL, assuming that they are exempt from its distribution restrictions.

"The traditional GPL doesn't apply to the provision of or to Google Search," Lindberg says. This fact hasn't escaped the notice of the Free Software Foundation. The so-called SaaS loophole is being addressed by an updated version of GPL called Affero GPL. "It's just a way to keep that original intent of GPL is met in a new computing environment," Lindberg says.

And that move to force cloud-provisioned software developers to give away their source code for free is making many look for a new license, to keep the GPL mentality out of the cloud., for example, uses Eclipse's license for its Elastic Computing Cloud (EC2) service to avoid having to give away its code, says Eclipse's Milinkovich.

Your alternatives to GPL

Businesses that don't like GPL's restrictions have no shortage of alternatives. Major competitors to GPL include Apache, which is using its Web development roots to attract licensees, and Eclipse, which began as a project targeting Java developers but has since expanded into many software areas. Other significant licenses include the Perl-focused Artistic License, the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) License, the MIT License, and the Mozilla Public License (MPL). There are also dozens of smaller licensors.

"I believe that licensing innovation is positive for the industry, as new business models are tested," says Josep Mitja, COO of Openbravo, a developer of open source business software. But there's also a downside, he notes, since vendors can easily spend weeks or even months seeking out the best possible choice: "The industry needs to avoid an excessive proliferation of those licenses to avoid creating confusion in the market."

GPL still has a place, given its reach

Despite the arrival of newer, more business-friendly rivals, hardly anyone believes GPL is at any risk of disappearing. "GPL code has the largest single, sharable base of code across the entire open source spectrum," observes attorney Lindberg. "That's a tremendous advantage that's not going to go away anytime soon."

Analyst Kiewe says that there will be places for both GPL and alternate licensing platforms in open source's future. He believes that GPL will continue to attract large numbers of nonbusiness users. "You'll always have people who want to work on the big ideas, want to share those freely, and don't want to be inhibited by nondisclosure agreements and all the rest of the stuff that comes with typical commercial development," he says.

"If you're a university or a research center, and you want to get your ideas out into the world, and you want them to be used freely, and you don't necessarily want somebody else essentially stealing your concept and repurposing them in the commercial context, then a GPL license is appropriate," Kiewe says.

But Lindberg predicts that GPL's current overwhelming market dominance is destined to diminish as the open source market continues to both expand and fragment into niches. "You are going to see a wide variety of licensing options, as different projects are tuned toward different preferences and different segments of the market," he says.

John Edwards is a freelance technology writer located in the Phoenix area.

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