Friday, March 30, 2007

One more cheer for the FSF

In noting the improvements in the latest draft of GPLv3, there is one I missed: dropping the SaaS compulsory sharing. Blogger Fabrizio Capobianco is ranting that the latest draft ruins the GPLv3, which he had counted on closing the “ASP loophole.” Matt Asay is drinking Fabrizio’s Kool-Aid® (or Pellegrino, or [fill in appropriate metaphor here]).

Messrs. Capobianco and Asay think it’s terrible that companies can bring open source in house, use it to offer services over the web, make their own changes and not give back those changes. (Think Google). The GPLv2 defines distribution as, well, distributing your software, so offering services that run on that software doesn’t trigger the compulsory sharing provisions. (If you haven’t been down this path, see Larry Rosen’s book in my OSS bibliography, or the GPLv2 chapter available free online).

At one point, GPLv3 was intended to trigger the GPL’s distribution clause with online services (such as ASPs and Software-as-a-Service), with the intention that any company using GPLv3-licensed code to deliver services would have to make their changes available to the rest of the world. As I found in my consulting practice, such mandatory disclosure would be a great benefit to dual license companies, because it would add one more hassle to slow competitors and force people to pay up.

LogoToday a few diehards are annoyed that Google, Amazon and others run Linux server farms and don’t share their changes. But five years ago, they were desperate for such validation, and later proud that such (oxymoron alert) blue chip dot-coms endorsed a community-developed technology as suitable for the most demanding mission-critical IT operations.

Suppose Linus Torvalds agrees to the GPLv3 (his big issue seems to the anti-DRM clauses of the previous draft). Suppose the GPLv3 does “close the ASP loophole,” requiring Google etc. to share their changes with the world. So what will happen? Perhaps some would share their changes.

But I also think there would be a resurgence of interest in technologies made available under more open licenses (i.e., without compulsory sharing). Things like OpenBSD or FreeBSD might suddenly get popular again. Or the companies using the existing Linux under GPLv2 could just decide not to take any updates under the new license. In a free market, the decentralized choices of private actors are frustrating to social planners: when people have choices, they’ll do what’s in their own self-interest, not what the social planner wants them to do.

The FSF seems to be reacting realistically to market signals, despite what some of its idealist supporters would want it to do. It deserves to be commended for such pragmatism, because dealing with the world as it is will be a far more effective strategy in the long run.

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1 comment:

doug said...

i'm sorry, but this all makes me hurl. if you want open source, open source it. What the next party does with it is none of your business - you're the peson who gave it away, right? Attaching conditions, by definition, makes it NOT OPEN SOURCE!! Don't any of these people get this!?

sigh. hurl. blech.