Does GPL still matter?

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

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Other benefits of GPL alternatives Jagielski says that beyond friendly business terms, most alternative licenses offer the benefit of being written more clearly and precisely than GPL. "There's some concern that the GPL, as written, is just a little bit hard to understand," he says. "You need to worry much more about when GPL kicks in and when it doesn't and that means, of course, that you might need to get the legal department involved."

Jagielski claims that Apache's licensing terms are written to be comprehensible to people with no legal training. "It's very, very easy to read and understand, so it's a less risky license for external companies to use," he says.

While license terms are critical, open source developers must also ponder other considerations, including the scope and depth of each license platform's respective development community. "The reason why these other licenses are gaining traction is because of the community that has evolved around them, almost as much -- or even more than -- features of the licenses themselves," says attorney Lindberg.

Thanks to its longevity and market dominance, GPL has a very large, deep, and active developer community. But other licensors are catching up. "I think that you're starting to see a slow push back from some of these other licensing communities, where they're starting to prove that they can build, establish, and maintain a strong community without the reciprocal provision of the GPL," Lindberg says. "That's opening the door for those who are more comfortable with these more permissive licenses, like Apache and Eclipse, to exercise their preferences."

GPL changes would hinder commercial cloud-based apps To force the free distribution of source code, the GPL requires publishers to place the source code on the disk they distribute their applications on. Under GPL, "you've got to give it away for free, and you've got to give the source code away for free as well," says analyst Kiewe.

The cloud gave developers a loophole, since software provisioned over the Internet such as through SaaS isn't actually distributed, just run from a central server accessible over the Internet. That means there's no need to distribute the source code for GPL cloud applications. Thus, many cloud developers still use the original GPL, assuming that they are exempt from its distribution restrictions.

"The traditional GPL doesn't apply to the provision of Salesforce.com or to Google Search," Lindberg says. This fact hasn't escaped the notice of the Free Software Foundation. The so-called SaaS loophole is being addressed by an updated version of GPL called Affero GPL. "It's just a way to keep that original intent of GPL is met in a new computing environment," Lindberg says.

And that move to force cloud-provisioned software developers to give away their source code for free is making many look for a new license, to keep the GPL mentality out of the cloud. Amazon.com, for example, uses Eclipse's license for its Elastic Computing Cloud (EC2) service to avoid having to give away its code, says Eclipse's Milinkovich.

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