Chad Perrin: SOB

4 April 2007

the problem with GPL thinking

Filed under: Geek,Liberty,Metalog,Popular — apotheon @ 12:11

I’ve noticed an influx of new visitors to SOB this morning, leaving comments on and linking to my entry the decay of the Debian distribution. It’s kind of a strong title, as one commenter pointed out, but I think it fits as one person’s view of what’s going on. I can’t help but wonder if what looks to me to be a first year of a slow death (and oh, how I hope I’m wrong) is somehow tied in with the controversies over paid release development that arose in the Debian community last year, and the rush to get a new Stable branch release out a mere 18 months (give or take) after Sarge hit the Stable release.

Among the sources of incoming link attention is More rants, a second coffee from a weblog called Planète Béranger. Beranger himself quoted my brief mention of my discomfort with the GPL as the point he found most interesting in my SOB entry, which kinda warms the cockles of my heart — it was a throw-away statement, but in some ways I think the most important part of what I said. Predictably, between that and his comments about GPLv3, some people took issue with his position in comments posted to his own weblog entry.

The very first sentence of the very first comment, in fact, was “One thing to remember about the BSD license is that people will exploit it for their own benefit.” This is a common sentiment, and one that I find not only silly in practice but downright disgusting when one starts examining the psychological roots of that sort of comment. Here’s the bit that immediately followed that sentence:

From time to time Theo de Raadt will rant online about the large corporations who profit from his hard work (things like OpenSSH) and don’t give one penny to help fund these projects. Granted, Theo has a hard time not annoying others as he is very opinionated and does not care how others perceive him. The point is, the spirit of Absolute Freedom associated with a BSD style license can work against a project. Money aside, the idea that software can be better through a community effort might sound like nothing more than a pipe dream, but I believe that this software development model can and will work. A BSD style license creates an opportunity to fracture community development. I don’t believe in an altruistic human nature (at least not in our daily lives).


Basically, what the originator of these words (identified as “Patrick”) seems to be thinking breaks down thusly:

  1. Theo de Raadt, as the head of the OpenBSD project, is in a position to know how bad things are on the BSD side of the fence.
  2. As evidenced by Theo’s occasional rants, people are taking ideas from open source projects and not giving anything back. Shame on them.
  3. The BSD licensing model is obviously broken, based on this evidence.
  4. The GPL is the One True Community Open Source Project License.
  5. Community development falls apart at the seams with that weakling BSD license.
  6. Because humans aren’t naturally altruistic (at least in their daily lives), we should force them to behave as if they were with regard to use of open source software.

Obviously, I’m using a little bit of hyperbole to make my point. I’m sure that Patrick will/would take some issue with my paraphrase, but my response to that is simply that if that’s not how he meant it he should have been more careful with the composition of his sentences — and I suspect that, once all is said and done, he’d either recant or end up being shown to hold those opinions to some nontrivial degree anyway. Seriously. Compare my breakdown with the implications of the quote. See if you don’t agree.


Here’s my take on those points of the breakdown:

  • Theo de Raadt is one person with some very inconsistent ideas (in that sense, bearing a glancing similarity to RMS). For instance, thanks to his guidance, everything in the OpenBSD community is about openness, except the format of the official installer CD image. No, that’s proprietary, “owned” by Theo, and you have to pay for it to acquire it legally. Yes, really. Imagine that. Gee, and people wonder why OpenBSD isn’t more popular. Based on that I’m really not at all surprised to discover that Theo seems to think someone owes him a living.

  • People make use of open source software of every stripe, including GPLed software, without “giving anything back” in terms of development or money. So what? There are a whole lot of people reading these words without clicking on the ads on SOB or posting thoughtful comments, too. News flash: I don’t hate them for it. I license all my original content on this site using the CCD CopyWrite license (edit: These days, I use the Open Works License instead — which is even more permissive than the CCD CopyWrite license.), not because I want some quid pro quo or something, or because I’m too stupid to realize someone will likely use my words without giving me money or contributing beneficial modifications back to me, but because I have a real, well-reasoned belief that it’s the ethical thing to do — that the only claim I have on the product of my intellect once I convey it into the minds of others is due credit for originating the ideas. I’m not interested in cynical, scam-like ploys to “force” people to “contribute” something. Ultimately, people should decide for themselves whether what I’m creating is valuable enough to support it somehow — or whether there is some other value to be gained from “contributing” somehow. More on that in the last point of this list.

  • The BSD licensing model is not broken. It works great. There are strong communities for both FreeBSD and OpenBSD, and since (at least in part) abandoning its focus on portability the NetBSD project seems to have ceased to maintain the same strength, probably because people aren’t seeing as much point in moving to NetBSD as they used to. That’s the way it goes. Technology evolves, and the bits that don’t evolve well die out. That’s the way it should be, as opposed to the proprietary model of “The law evolves, and technologies that cannot manipulate that die out regardless of their intrinsic value.” Good. That means the system works. Freedom works — freedom for developers, distributors, and users, rather than freedom for code with the developers, distributors, and users leashed to the code (which is more the FSF/GPL model). If anything, it’s the GPL that’s broken as a community licensing model, which I’ll address in the next two points.

  • Obviously, the GPL isn’t the One True Anything to anyone but the faithful of the Church of the FSF. The zealous pushing of radical anti-corporatism (which isn’t necessarily bad — I’m of the opinion that corporate law is a direct violation of the principles of free market capitalism) actually alienates many potential users and contributors for free/libre/open source software projects, and causes legal problems for community software development and distribution efforts. In short, the GPL is broken by design, as proven by the simple fact (among many) that the GPL actually violates the FSF’s own Freedom 2 (the third freedom) of the four freedoms it claims are necessary to actual “software freedom”. Yes, really.

  • I don’t know where people get the idea that the BSD license cannot allow a community to hold together, or that it somehow opposes the community building spirit of open source projects. The FreeBSD and OpenBSD communities are stronger (in terms of the actual community integrity, though not necessarily in terms of numbers) than most Linux distribution communities by a pretty wide margin. Even better, in the BSD community, you don’t see the BSD cops running around threatening small grass-roots *BSD projects with lawsuits for obscure violations of half-baked anti-corporate clauses of the BSD license. On the other hand, you do see the GPL cops running around threatening small grass-roots Linux distribution projects with lawsuits for obscure violations of half-baked anti-corporate clauses of the GPL. The FSF, with the GPL as its weapon, is so intent on its idea of the One True Way that it’s willing to destroy people’s attempts to do good work in its tunnel-vision focus on destroying all proprietary software. I’m for eliminating proprietary, closed source software development, and for ethical as well as technical reasons, but unlike the FSF I take a “first, do no harm” position on the matter and do not in any way condone collateral damage to the “good guys”. I do not subscribe to the “to make an omelette you’ve gotta break a few eggs” notion of utilitarian, collectivist ethics that seems to guide the FSF hand. Collectively (pun not intended in this case), the FSF, the GPL, and RMS may be the biggest threat to an eventual ethical solution to the problem of software copyrights and patents, in the “good enough is the enemy of perfect” sense — it’s the de facto flagship for open source software licensing already, and as it gets more entrenched it continues to make things worse for open source development even as it provides a focal point for open source software mindshare.

  • I don’t even want people to be altruistic. Altruism, as an ethical or moral system, is broken by design (there’s that term again): it guarantees that the “bad guys” win, because the “best” people — the most altruistic — are the losers every time, by definition. I don’t want people to provide me with stuff, whatever that stuff may be, at their own expense, out of the sheer goodness of their hearts. I want them to gain value for what they give me, whether it’s helping to propagate ideas of mine with which they agree, promoting more thoughtful exchanges, or some tangible benefit. In the case of open source software, the first and primary benefit we gain from contributing is that the software we use without paying licensing fees and the like continues to improve. Good! Idiots who think they’re “getting away with something” when they copy open source software source code into proprietary, closed source software and try to sell it are actually doing themselves a disservice, cutting themselves off from effective widespread community help with further development. It’s poetic justice, and they’re welcome to it. I’d rather people give me what they feel it’s in their best interest to give than that they feel forced to give something to me by the metaphorical (and, ultimately, very real, if somewhat abstract) gun to their heads of copyright law.

So, people exploit BSD-licensed code for their own benefit. One response: Good! Would you prefer they were forced to use it for your benefit, instead? There’s a term for that — “antisocial personality disorder”.

Another response: If you really think that the world is going to come crashing down around your ears because your open source license doesn’t have a “pass on the source code OR ELSE” clause, you haven’t spent much time in the *BSD communities. The point here is to encourage cooperation and contribution, not to punish those who don’t want to cooperate and contribute. At least, that’s how I view it. This brings me to the part that disgusts me about FSF-ish attitudes toward open source software:

I find spite utterly without redeeming quality. If there’s real evil in humans, spite is a good-sized chunk of it. The impulse to somehow visit punishment upon people who use your software creations, and pass them around to others, without passing on source code is spiteful, pure and simple. That’s all punishment really is, in general. Oh, sure, you can use it as a stick to deter people from behaving in a way you don’t like, but if the end result of that is to do harm to those that behave as you do like, as well, then your stick is being swung far too wildly. I’d rather that a hundred eeeevil corporations “get away with” using a fork of OpenSSH in their proprietary software offerings than that a single end-user find that passing it on to someone else as a friendly gesture without source code has landed him in court. Why not work on encouraging good behavior rather than trying to force it at gunpoint? From a purely engineering-based perspective, weighing the positives against the negatives, this should be a no-brainer. If you want to give something away, give it away. If you want to control how other people can use and distribute it, start a corporation and use copyright and patent lawyers to enforce your will along with the rest of the ethically unsound jackasses out there. Your spiteful focus on hurting people because they didn’t adhere to your strict rules for source code distribution makes my skin crawl.

Besides, all this nonsense about the BSD license being roughly equivalent to the Public Domain in the ability of eeeevil corporations to bury it in proprietary software is obvious poppycock. Check out the PDF, “Reading the BSD License in Isolation”, at Open Source Law of Sydney, Australia if you don’t believe me. The ideas in it about forced contribution of source code are stretched pretty thin, I think, and wouldn’t hold up in court (thank goodness — don’t need another GPL), but the rest of it about copyleft, et cetera, is excellent reading and appears to be spot-on. (IANAL, but I’m not a complete legal dunce either).


  1. Actually your notion of altruism being broken by design is wrong. Evolutionary biology has shown that altruism is a selected for trait, meaning that altruistic people are more likely to be successful in life, at least in reproduction. Your misunderstanding of human nature leads to your libertarian view of the GPL which is unfortunately fatally flawed. The GPL is a good license, and the freedoms it codifies have allowed linux to succeed where other operating systems have failed, and many have failed, not just NetBSD; Darwin, OS 2, BeOS, the list is pretty long.

    Comment by jeremiah foster — 4 April 2007 @ 01:01

  2. Actually, my notion of altruism being broken by design is not wrong, in an ethical/moral sense. Your notion of evolutionary altruism seems to be wrong, however, or at least imprecise. Altruism in evolution is only successful where it conforms to specific statistical standards of improving the survivability of the gene for that behavioral trait, which means that in successful genetic implementations of altruism an organism should be quite unlikely to sacrifice itself for a twin, but about 50% likely to take substantial risks to life and limb for a twin. The percentages drop precipitously at greater genetic disparities. That, however, is entirely unrelated to ethical and moral altruism, especially since such genetic altruism is (to paraphrase Dawkins) actually a case of genetic selfishness that manifests in instinctual behavior almost indistinguishable from altruism.

    As for your statements about the GPL and my “fatally flawed” understanding of human nature (which seems even weaker when viewed in light of my above discussion of your misunderstanding of genetic “altruism”), it’s nice that you can say that, but statements without support mean almost nothing to me. In other words, saying it doesn’t make it so.

    edit: I’m kinda curious about how you think Darwin has “failed”, or how you think that the hundreds of Linux distributions that have no appreciable users (and more than likely never will) don’t count as “failures” by your standard. NetBSD hasn’t necessarily “failed” yet — give it time, it may turn things around, and its potential “failure” is more a result of the direction the core community took than anything to do with licensing. The “failure” counterexample, in terms of market share, of Microsoft Windows should be something of a wake-up call as well.

    (edit: My description of the mechanism of genetic altruism is, of course, grossly oversimplified — it’s more a matter of a close-relation threshold vs. risk as an instinctual calculation than a straight-up percentage chance. Still, the percentage statement basically approximates it in layman’s terms.)

    Comment by apotheon — 4 April 2007 @ 01:38

  3. […] I can’t really comment much on the *BSD-related personal experiences of Beranger, of course. Not only are they his experiences, and not mine, but I haven’t even used any *BSD in much depth until fairly recently. For the most part, I agree with what he has to say that is more objective, or at least based on information that is more objective in nature. I do have one caveat to bring up, however. For instance, Theo de Raadt likes having at least one string attached, contrary to what Beranger says — the copyright on the installer format. That’s one of the major reasons I chose to try out FreeBSD instead of OpenBSD when I was looking for a replacement for Debian as my primary OS. Considering his approach to freedom only as it applies to software licensing, however, I must agree that he’s a lot more consistent and credible than Richard Stallman and friends. It’s where you get to the edges of what’s considered “software” that he starts getting annoying and inconsistent, really — and that, in itself, at least makes a certain amount of sense. Stallman and the FSF are just self-contradictory in general, and are liars, hypocrites, or simply not very clear on the concept of logical consistency. By the way, when Beranger said “As it was once said: the BSD license protects the freedom of the users, whereas the GPL protects the freedom of the code,” he was likely referring to me, as he referred to me once before on that same topic. Perhaps the most important point of this section of Beranger’s editorial, however, is the simple fact that arguably the most important lineup of open source OSes — the *BSDs — is marginalized and ignored by many self-appointed advocates of open source software. […]

    Pingback by Chad Perrin: SOB » problems in open source development — 16 April 2007 @ 05:34

  4. […] “GNU/Linux”, and you mostly equate “GNU/Linux” with open source goodness while doing your best to minimize or ignore the rest of the open source world, you look to people still working and playing in the closed source world like a religious fanatic. […]

    Pingback by Chad Perrin: SOB » GNU/Linux vs. Open Source Software — 16 October 2008 @ 03:03

  5. I have an issue with number 1. You say OpenBSD is about openness but charges for the CD. This is true but…..

    Around 1999-2001, I wanted to learn “Unix”. I thought going the Linux route to learning Unix would be a good way to go about it. I was interested in Debian. But for Debian, I had to spend all that time downloading one CD, let’s not mention the number of CD’s that kept getting added to the distribution. Same with Red Hat. Also the Debian website made it a real pain to find and download the iso files. I stayed away from OpenBSD because I had to pay for the CD. But then I discovered that I can get OpenBSD without paying. All I needed is one floppy disk. That’s right one floppy disk. Heck with Debian I needed 2 or 3 floppies. With one floppy and an Internet connection, I could have OpenBSD completely installed and configured in 30 minutes. That is less time than downloading one CD of Debian. Needless to say, I started learning “Unix” the OpenBSD route because it cost $0 and was significantly cheaper in time than Linux. (Note: I was interested in Unix from a server perspective back then, not a desktop. Linux was (back then) and is probably cheaper time-wise from a desktop perspective.)

    Comment by ihaveissuewithno1 — 15 July 2009 @ 10:02

  6. I’m not really sure how any of that disputes my statement that Theo’s claim of proprietary control over the format of the install CD is inconsistent with the whole “openness” ethic of the OpenBSD project he started.

    Comment by apotheon — 15 July 2009 @ 07:51

  7. Theo doesn’t control the CD, he lets people download it, he’s been that way for more than a year, you daft? At least read up on the subject matter’s current state before talking about it. I don’t go doing reviews on Redhat and use 6 as the one I critique.

    And it has never been against the policy of openness to keep copyright, copyright has always been a big issue for all the BSDs. Mr. de Raadt kept the CD image he created under more restrictive terms than those of the source code he released, that did not prevent anyone from going through the work to make their own CD image, nor did it prevent people from installing it online.

    The CD sales dropped noticably when Theo gave into the whiney bitches of the world that liked to claim they would buy CDs if the images were downloadable.

    Comment by Nat — 3 August 2009 @ 06:12

  8. Theo doesn’t control the CD, he lets people download it, he’s been that way for more than a year, you daft?

    This SOB entry is more than two years old. Are you daft? Here it is, right in front of you, and it doesn’t require going to the OpenBSD Website or anything to notice that the date at the top of the page is 4 April 2007.

    And it has never been against the policy of openness to keep copyright, copyright has always been a big issue for all the BSDs.

    “It has always been done this way” isn’t much of a defense. I don’t consider “tradition” enough justification to do things wrong — and it in no way makes copyright consistent with an ethical perspective on “openness”. Of course, Theo’s perspective on “openness” seems to be more functional than ethical in nature, so maybe a matter of ethics isn’t relevant to his decision on the matter, but that’s not the argument you put forward, so it doesn’t really help your case any (especially after that absurd “more than a year” gaffe).

    Mr. de Raadt kept the CD image he created under more restrictive terms than those of the source code he released, that did not prevent anyone from going through the work to make their own CD image, nor did it prevent people from installing it online.

    That’s irrelevant to the point I made — which was about consistency of principle, and not about whether it was possible to install OpenBSD without paying for it.

    The CD sales dropped noticably when Theo gave into the whiney bitches of the world that liked to claim they would buy CDs if the images were downloadable.

    That’s too bad. On the other hand, since I never acquired OpenBSD at all before the CD format was legally opened up, I’m kind of a counterexample — and I’ve only downloaded it once since it has been opened. The first time I put it on a production machine of my own (I’ve only put it on a test system so far), I intend to send money.

    I wonder if there have been any secondary financial benefits of opening it up, such as increased usage leading to increased contributions of code or contributions of money outside of “buying” the CD. You probably aren’t interested in overall effects, though, since focusing on a single metric lets you bitch and moan about people who have consistent systems of ethics.

    Comment by apotheon — 3 August 2009 @ 07:06

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All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License