Does GPL still matter?

As open source gets more commercial, GPL's idealism is overridden by developers' business needs


Jeff Haynie reached a crossroads last summer. Haynie, CEO of Appcelerator, a firm that develops open source cross-platform application development software, made a decision filled with implications for his company's future.

That decision: to toss away his upcoming product's Gnu General Public License (GPL), the best-known and most popular free software license, in favour of what he viewed as a more business-friendly alternative. "We initially started the product with a GPLv3 license and we decided last summer to move the license to Apache," Haynie says.

Haynie isn't the only business-oriented open source community member to have made, or at least pondered, a move to a GPL-free future. A June study conducted by Black Duck Software, an open source development tools vendor, shows that the Free Software Foundation's GPL -- although far and away still the dominant open source licensing platform -- could be starting to slide. The survey found that despite strong growth in GPLv3 adoption, the percentage of open source projects using GPL variants dropped from 70 to 65 percent from the previous year.

Before deciding to pull away from GPL, Haynie says Appcelerator surveyed some two dozen software vendors working within the same general market space. To his surprise, Haynie saw that only one was using a GPL variant. "Everybody else, hands down, was MIT, Apache, or New BSD," he says.

"The proponents of GPL like to tell people that the world only needs one open source license, and I think that's actually, frankly, just a flat-out dumb position," says Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, one of the many organisations now offering an open source license with more generous commercial terms than GPL.

Alternative licenses offer liberal code distribution terms (which means more revenue potential) and more clearly written licenses -- and they have eager and qualified developer communities, advocates say.

GPL limits developers' ability to make money As the open source market continues marching away from its roots -- the lone developer who creates a useful product as a labour of love -- appreciation for the idealism that lies at the GPL's heart is diminishing. Businesses that view open source development as a path to a profitable future rather than as an altruistic mission are increasingly balking at what they view as the license's excessively restrictive aspects concerning code improvements.

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