Is the GPL good for the software industry?


The General Public Licence (GPL) is not good for the software industry for a variety of reasons. These include:
  • The GPL is full of contradictions and could be interpreted in a number of different ways. At the outset, it bears noting that the GPL is as much a political manifesto as it is a quasi-legal document. It is replete with ambiguities. More importantly, it has never been tested in court. Nobody knows what judges or juries will do when presented with the GPL and asked to find that someone violated its terms, or when someone tries to use it as a defence to a copyright or patent infringement claim.
  • The GPL’s authors have one point in mind: to destroy the value of proprietary software. Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, was recently quoted as saying: “Proprietary software is antisocial and shouldn’t exist.” If the authors of the GPL have their wish, there will be no cost to software. Why is that so bad for end users? If software is free, companies won’t be around to service that software, provide customer support and produce upgrades. How will software companies afford to pay for salaries, benefits and keep people gainfully employed? It won’t happen with free software.
  • IT companies avoid porting to software that is licensed under the GPL. The SCO Group recently received a letter from a company supporting our current legal battles, stating: “We have resisted porting our software tool to Linux because of the fear of seeing our source code published on the Internet shortly thereafter.” We believe that for Linux to flourish in the future, a licence other than the GPL will have to be prescribed.
  • The GPL causes software innovation to stagnate. In this same letter that SCO received, the writer states: “Small developers like us used to be the lifeblood of the computer business — innovating and bringing fresh ideas and products to the marketplace. How can this continue if we are supposed to donate all of our efforts?” The GPL essentially prohibits a company from taking a software product like Linux, writing proprietary applications and add-ons, and then selling that software without showing anyone what was done to it.
  • The authors of the GPL wrote the licence in such a way that it would govern the use, distribution and copying of software that was licensed under the GPL. These are the same items governed by the US Copyright Act. The Copyright Act pre-empts any claims that are governed regarding use, distribution and copying. Because of this, SCO believes the GPL is pre-empted by federal copyright law.

SCO believes that there are better licensing models available which, unlike the GPL, are not in conflict with US copyright law. These licences give developers greater incentives to innovate without destroying the value of proprietary software. Until the legality of the GPL is fully tested, organisations that rely on open source software released under the GPL will continue to take an unnecessary risk. The only way in which this risk can be mitigated is for the GPL to change, or for developers to work under more flexible licences.

Sontag is senior vice president and general manager of the SCOsource division of The SCO Group. He can be reached at


The GNU General Public Licence (GPL) has a positive effect on the software industry. Vibrant software sharing defended by the legal protections of GPL inspires growth and advancement, just as publishing and sharing research results invigorates fields such as physics, mathematics and psychology. Software advances through incremental improvement. Paradigms shift, standards change, and methods are reinvented. Access to others’ results, both successes and failures, spurs rapid growth. The widespread adoption of Internet technology started from widely shared and incrementally improved free software. That process continues today.

The GPL does change the ethical implications of our development activity. Sharing software is encouraged; sharing improved versions of software is rewarded. The primary industrial mechanisms and business models for software — support, contracted customisation and improvements for hire — thrive and are equalised under this model of freedom. Software is now, as it really always has been, a service rather than a product. The GPL lays the ground rules, ensuring that no particular developer or company holds power over any other, and no one controls the software users.

Users face a free marketplace. A vendor who distributes under GPL does not lock you in to their product. If you don’t like your contractors, you fire them and hire new ones. You have the source code, and the means and rights to modify it, so you can do the work in-house. Software companies can be held accountable by their customers and must actually show the value of the expertise that they add to the software.

Most industries that are primarily intellectual in nature, such as software, law and auto mechanics, thrive best as a market for experts. Information about the field is publicly available, taught in universities and swapped among practitioners. But experts who can leverage their knowledge into clear results for clients move to the top. Activity of experts under the umbrella of GPL forms a meritocracy, and yields a shared commons that profits all.

Admittedly, some business models don’t function in that meritocracy. The model whereby you bamboozle the world into running your proprietary software and extract an exclusionary licensing fee from each individual — who cannot fix bugs, make improvements or adaptations or get support services from anyone but you — has already begun to collapse. Trade-secret proprietary software, based on keeping knowledge away from users and programmers, now fails the test of business effectiveness as well as ethical propriety. A new IT economy, properly based on software engineering’s scientific roots, has emerged. The GPL underpins that new economy, as it puts users, developers, customers and academics on equal footing to improve and profit from the shared commons.

Success in this new industry will not be determined by exclusionary licensing deals, but by the ability of your software engineers to understand and improve the commons. The GPL creates a fair and competitive software industry that functions as a scientific endeavor, not a snake oil sale.

Kuhn is executive director of the Free Software Foundation, a charitable organisation in Boston. He can be reached at

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