Despite the meaning "virus" normally connotes, the viral aspect
of the GNU General Public License -- known formally as "copyleft"
-- is a tremendous benefit to free software developers and the
community they support. Developers support copyleft because it
ensures that no proprietary interests will be able to benefit from
the time and effort they graciously donate to the community. The
license terms are very specific: one is free to use copylefted code
as long as any modified versions one distributes include the source
modifications. This prevents companies from taking developers' free
code, adding functionality, and denying the source changes to the
very community that enabled their work in the first place.
Developers support copyleft also because it reduces code
forking. Despite some rather interesting arguments over the years
on the kernel mailing list, the development of Linux has had few
minor and short-lived branches away from the primary code base.
While much of this is a credit to the maturity of the kernel
developers and the respect they have for Linus, it is also due in
part to the fact that any distribution of the kernel must have the
entire source code included: this ensures that universally "good"
features will be incorporated into every fork, keeping the
offshoots very close together or discouraging their existence at
all. The GPL is the reason why Microsoft is fighting Linux instead
of "embracing and extending" it: the license terms prohibit their
kind of closed development.
Finally, developers support copyleft because it works. Despite
the relatively recent fervor surrounding this issue, the GPL is a
decade old and has produced some of the most successful free
software in history, including the Linux kernel, GNOME, and the GNU
project. While non-copyleft licenses like the BSD license can also
point to many free software projects -- (Free|Open|Net)BSD,
sendmail, and Apache, to name just a few -- they must unfortunately
also claim responsibility for the proliferation of many proprietary
software projects -- such as BSDI and Stronghold -- which were
based on code that originally was developed by the community for
Consumers, whether they know it or not, also benefit from
copyleft. Let's assume that the free software development model is
inherently better than the proprietary model: there are many
articles that eloquently and logically support this position,
including Eric Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," so I will
simply assert this as an axiom. Consequently, as more free software
is copylefted, there are fewer areas in which proprietary software
interests can reasonably compete, because they cannot start from an
already robust implementation and simply add features; they are
forced to reinvent the wheel. This ensures the proliferation of
free software, the commoditization of end-user applications, and
the consequential migration of proprietary interests toward the
edge of software development and away from the typical consumer.
The stability, extensibility, and standards compliance ensured by
the free software model will make this a benefit for all
That the free-market should benefit from something as
"communistic" [sic] as the GPL should raise a signal: perhaps
claims of the GPL as communist are off base? Indeed, the GPL uses
capitalism in a reasonable way to foster community and sharing, by
only allowing participation by those who agree to follow the rules.
No one is forced to comply with the terms of the GPL, but if one
does not wish to do so, one is bound by the terms of fair use,
which certainly do not include unauthorized distribution by
corporations or individuals wishing to make a profit or
fraudulently assert intellectual property ownership. The GPL isn't
about "free beer," because one is still required to pay for certain
kinds of use: the payment is simply in the form of open
modifications, rather than money.
Irrespective of the GPL's nature with respect to capitalism, it
is clearly the right license for many projects and for many
developers. In certain cases, a non-copyleft license may be more
appropriate, even for a hard-core GPL advocate: for instance, if
one is attempting to propagate a new open standard in the face of a
de-facto standard supported by numerous non-free software packages,
such as is the case with FreeCDDB and the related CDIndex efforts versus
Escient. However, these cases
are quite limited in scope.
In order to protect the investment of time and intellect that
goes into creating free software, use of the GPL should be
advocated, not reviled. Although some may not agree that the
commoditization of end-user software is a good idea, it is hard to
argue with the fact that the open standards, competition, and
choice fostered by free software are a benefit to consumers.
Ultimately, only copyleft will shut out inherently inferior
proprietary interests and ensure that free software prevails.
Kyle Rose is a Ph.D. student in computer science at
MIT in Cambridge, MA. He holds a bachelor's degree in computer
science from Cornell University. He has been a software developer
for 18 of his 23 years, and has been active in free software
advocacy and development for five years. He is currently working at
Akamai Technologies, Inc., a Cambridge-based startup. The views
expressed in this article are not necessarily those of his
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