The Gnu General Public Licence (GPL) has been around in one form or another since the Gnu manifesto published by Richard Stallman in 1985.
The free software movement founded at that time has not simply created the most successful copyright licence ever, it has acted as a guide to other, similar movements, including open data, open government and open information systems, such as Wikipedia. It is the same principles that Vint Cerf applied in 1983 when he “invented” the internet.
See: Computerworld's open source special feature
The most recent incarnation of the GPL is version 3, GPLv3, which was released in 2007 after several years of consultation with members of the FOSS (free and open source software) community — including major corporations such as Apple, HP, Nokia, IBM, Sony and many more. This version of the GPL improved internationalisation, fixed “bugs” and clarified the language around patents. Roughly three quarters of FOSS projects use the GPL.
Fast forward to July 2009. Google is reporting that half the GPL projects it hosts are now using the GPLv3 — that is roughly 56,000 projects hosted by Google alone. In the world of active projects GPLv3 adoption is even greater.
So why, in this web services world, is the GPL still so popular and still so relevant. There are a number of reasons:
Clarity of principal: The GPL’s purpose has been extremely clear and consistent for nearly 25 years. It turns software licensing on its head to guarantee freedoms to users rather than the normal protection of rights of developers.
With a plethora of “open source” licences available today there is a sad lack of this clarity in many other licences. Many of these open source licences are self-serving and have been developed to suit the purposes of a particular business or business model. They would be better labelled “limited source licences”.
Great development model: There are many in the free and open source community, such as Linus Torvalds, who like the GPL because it is simply the best and most sustainable model for developing good software.
Freedom: For some reason mentioning the word “freedom” is considered bad form, as if we are supposed to take freedom seekers as wild zealots who lack the ability to approach life in a rational and pragmatic manner.
Here are some of the reasons real people who have to deliver real and valuable outcomes in business have defined “freedom” as important to them:
• Freedom is a competitive landscape offering real choice.
• Freedom of choice for systems and software.
• Freedom is the ability to choose appropriate technology to achieve my business goals.
• Freedom to address IT change on our own terms.
• Freedom is the ability to make a choice today that doesn’t remove our ability to make a choice tomorrow.
• Freedom to share to build a better software platform.
• Freedom to collaborate in an open manner.
When put in these contexts, “freedom” seems a pretty rational word, which should not be a surprise to us. And it is for these reasons that the GPL is more relevant than ever to business, government and the wider New Zealand population.
Freedom is the capacity to determine your own choices. The GPL is an aid to providing that capacity.
Christie is president of the New Zealand Open Source Society