Open Source

Free as in Speech: or Why the GPL Isn’t Free

A symbol of freedom? Not the GPL.

Let’s just get this out in the open – I hate the GPL. I absolutely find it repulsive. The GPL has its uses, but unfortunately, those uses are not what most people assume when they imagine open source software. Part of this is undoubtedly the product of the era and culture the GPL was born, but not all. The GPL exists and continues to draw popularity in part due to its popularity – as circular as that is.

The main problem with the GPL is that it is not free, at least in the often used metric of “free as in speech”. In such a reference we compare the freedom of software with the freedom of speech in the United States. And, in such a comparison the GPL falls short. A classic example of free speech in the US is that of burning the US flag. From a June 11th, 2015 TIME article;

“..that was precisely the reason why the court, in the case Texas v. Johnson, declared that federal and state laws that protect the flag are in violation of free-speech protections. The flag is so revered because it represents the land of the free, and that freedom includes the ability to use or abuse that flag in protest.”

The concept of freedom here does not place restrictions, even on something as objectionable as burning the very symbol of that freedom. Yet, the GPL does not hold freedom to the same degree. Instead, it prevents GPL licensed software from being used in closed source systems.


Free, Without Restrictions

Free software should be free, without restrictions. Free software should be created to help people, even if that means allowing them to make a profit and possibly even enhance such software in private. The MIT and BSD licenses are two such examples of free software licenses.

It’s this last point that also illustrates flaws in the GPL. Software development, like any other profession, should have the freedom to earn a living. Companies should be allowed to utilize free software within closed ecosystems to make a profit. In return, these companies should – though are not obligated – to reciprocate as they see fit. Some companies do it in-kind, returning improvements directly to the software they’re using. Otherwise, do so through financial contributions. Others still do neither. That is freedom.


The GPL Has Its Uses

The GPL has its uses, just not what most people assume. In short, the GPL is designed to be regressive – designed to prevent and restrict, not liberate. In modern times this has been used more like a marketing gimmick. The FreeBSD project sums this up pretty well with;

“A less publicized and unintended use of the GPL is that it is very favorable to large companies that want to undercut software companies. In other words, the GPL is well suited for use as a marketing weapon, potentially reducing overall economic benefit and contributing to monopolistic behavior.”

This is not to say that all those who utilize the GPL are doing so manipulatively – quite the opposite. Most people and companies seemingly have honest intentions and are likely ignorant of the restrictive nature of the GPL.

What about you? Do you intentionally utilize the GPL because of its restrictions? If so, do you also dub it “Free as in Speech”?

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About Jason

Jason is an experienced entrepreneur & software developer skilled in leadership, mobile development, data synchronization, and SaaS architecture. He earned his Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Computer Science from Arkansas State University.
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