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The GPL, the BSD Licence, and Being a Sucker

Introduction

I wrote this essay as a way to clarify my position on the choice of a licence for one’s open-source project and how it relates to being a sucker.

Dates

Published:
27-September-2005
Translated to English:
15-October-2005
Last Modified:
10-April-2011

The Essay Itself

At this (Hebrew) discussion in Linmagazine.co.il, a claim was made that people who distribute code that they wrote under BSD-style licences are suckers, while people who distribute their code under the GPL (GNU General Public Licence) are not, since they make sure no one will make a proprietary use of their code. In this essay, I’d like to reply to this in a rational manner. (As opposed to the flamefest in the original discussion).

First, let’s understand when a person is a “sucker”. If I went to the mall and bought peanuts for 20 dollars per 100 grams, then I’m a sucker. That’s because peanuts should be considerably cheaper. But if I went with my friend to a mall, and he didn’t have money and I bought him food, then was I a sucker?

The answer is an absolute “No”. Helping your neighbour does not count as being a sucker. I’m the last person that will claim that a person is obliged to help his friend, the poor, or in general sacrifice something for a “noble” cause. (see Objectivism). But if a person donates (time, money, property, etc.) to someone else he knows well, or for a cause he relates to, rationally and out of his or her own free will, does this makes him a sucker?

Hell no! It is obvious that an activity such as this is welcome. You always feel good when you help another, and it is always nice to receive something when the receiver has a need. I wouldn’t want to live in a society where everyone is selfish and is unwilling to help others at times of need. (And those who know me can testify that I have helped others a lot in the past and still am helping others when they need help.) [1].

How does it relate to the GPL and the BSD? It is obvious that a person who releases code under an open-source licence is contributing for the common good. (albeit he may sometimes have an Egoistical Interest to do it). If you’re really selfish, (or at least not in an Altruistic mood) then you’ll probably want to sell a software that you have written, albeit you may want to make sure the source code is viewable. Now, would using an LGPL licence (that allows linking to proprietary code) be a suckery act?

It isn’t that either. It’s possible that the originator has an interest or a desire that people will do a commercial use of his code. Whether it’s integration into proprietary code (without non-trivial changes), or even distributing code based on these changes. Why? If I wrote a library or a module, then it is possible that I’ll want that it people will make the largest possible use of it. That’s because when I wrote the library, I meant to solve a certain problem and I don’t have interest that people will write their own code that solves this problem times and again, only because they desire or need to distribute it as part of a non-open-source software.

Very well, so programmers of GPLed or LGPLed code are not suckers. But are programmers of software under BSD-style licences so? Again, they are not. First of all, they helped their neighbour (which naturally also includes commercial companies) and not just did a “suckery” act. Secondly, it is possible that they want people to integrate and modify this code. Perhaps because they want it to be part of an embedded software. Perhaps they want to have proprietary derived products that they can draw ideas and inspiration from. And perhaps they (and I included) just don’t want to worry what possible illegal use people make of their code. If you release a code under the Public Domain, then there’s a very small chance that someone will violate its licence. If you release it under the GPL, then there can be. I have enough worries as it is, and I don’t need more worries of what “malicious” use people are doing with my software. (Not to mention that I feel good if something like that happens because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.).

Thus, releasing a code under a non-GPLed licence does not make one a sucker. I’m not saying that people who release GPLed code are hypocrites or bastards (or just plain selfish). There are occasions, that the GPL is much more suitable than a different licence, and there are opposite occasions. Determining which licence is suitable when, is a completely different issue, which won’t be covered here.

For further reading see:

  1. Ken’s Musings about Free Software and Open Source - an essay of Ken Coar, one of the core members of the Apache project. Towards the end he explains why he prefers BSD-like licences.
  2. The homepage of Poul-Henning Kamp where he discusses his BSD-like “Beerware” licence.
  3. The Well and the Wall - an essay I wrote as a result of reading the Cathedral and the Bazaar on a pet project of mine, and why it turned out that the Public Domain licensing I chose for it, was ideal in this circumstance.
  4. An entry in Daniel Stenberg’s diary echoing his sentiments with the release of a new version of cURL and libcurl, that are distributed under a BSD-style licence.

If people will produce more code (or documentation or graphics or whatever) instead of labelling other people that are also passionately working on code, just because of its choice of licensing, the world will turn around a great deal faster. So until then, hack on!

I’d like to thank Omer Zak and Dotan Kamber who read early drafts of this essay and gave some useful commentary.

Footnote 1: Some people mistakenly believe that Selfishness and Selflessness are the only two possible strategies. But there is a third option - Rational Self Growth.

Coverage

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This document is Copyright by Shlomi Fish, 2005, and is available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0 Unported (or at your option any later version of that licence).

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