Chad Perrin: SOB

23 October 2008

BSD/Copyfree vs. Corporate Copyleft

Filed under: Geek,Liberty — apotheon @ 05:00

(This has been updated slightly as of May 2012 and January 2013.)

It’s pretty much an indisputable fact that, in the world of open source operating systems, Linux is the most generally popular. This applies to estimable widespread use, press, advocacy, and corporate support. Even though many other open source projects (that aren’t operating systems) are more widely used than the Linux kernel (OpenSSH and SQLite come to mind) because almost everybody using a Linux distribution has them — and others, using other OSes, have them as well — very few if any are more popular. Firefox and GCC may give it a run for its money, but they have lost market share to Chrome and Clang/LLVM, respectively, as well.

Among open source licenses, the GPL (including all its versions) is easily the most popular, though waning in popularity. Some open source software advocates tend to refer to the GPL first and foremost, or even only, especially those who call themselves “Free Software” advocates. Open source opponents refer to the GPL as well, in negative terms, even if they do not mention it by name. While Firefox has its own license (the MPL), it’s also available under the terms of the GPL. The Linux kernel is GPLed. Many of the strongest open source advocacy groups, notably including the FSF, the Linux Foundation, the Software Freedom Law Center, and Open Source Development Labs, have focused primarily on the GPL.

Copyfree-licensed systems like the major BSD Unix OSes, and copyfree licenses themselves such as the various BSD licenses, are (comparatively) getting ignored in the wider world of open source advocacy. Few are really against copyfree licensing, except insofar as their favorite licenses may not be copyfree licenses; their counter-advocacy efforts are generally focused on either the GPL or proprietary licensing, depending on where they stand with regard to the divide between open and closed source software development. Only the most rabid fans of copyleft licenses such as the GPL tend to be specifically anti-copyfree licensing, and even then only because they believe copyfree licenses encourage proprietary software vendors to restrict people’s freedom — which brings their true ire back to proprietary licensing rather than copyfree licensing per se. Even if I have personally received death threats and been called a number of unsavory, morally condemnatory things in online discussion because of my preference for copyfree licensing, the ultimate problem these people seemed to have with me was their belief I was somehow shilling for proprietary software vendors.

Ironically, proprietary closed source software and GPLed software are not nearly as opposed to each other in practice as many seem to believe:

  • On one hand, we have people like Microsoft’s Craig Mundie who have expressed the opinion that the GPL is a threat to software industry success and to copyright law.
  • On the other hand, we have people like Richard Stallman who set out to monkeywrench closed source software vendors by making it as difficult as possible for them to make effective use of GPLed code, and claim the GPL is the shield of software freedom.

On the gripping hand, organizations like IBM, MySQL AB, and MySQL’s “new” owner Sun Microsystems (subsequently purchased by Oracle) have proven that copyleft licenses like the GPL and closed source licenses are natural complements. It seems like any time someone in an online debate claims the GPL is just an anti-property, leftist attack on copyright, some GPL advocate (who typically identifies himself as a Free Software advocate) points out that the GPL couldn’t exist without copyright law. This is, on some level, generally meant as a diversion from the fact that GPL advocates are often bent on the destruction of any actual business model based around the sale of software. Ironically, however, that’s an important point: the GPL is a natural ally of software industry players whose business models are built on “ownership” of software copyrights.

Before we get into that, however, let us examine the poster child for GPL opposition, the corporate behemoth known best for its attacks on the GPL in principle, and open source software in name. Microsoft policies seem to indicate utter cluelessness on the subject of what makes the benefits of open source software work. The Shared Source initiative Mundie discussed in his 03 May 2001 speech on the subject of future commercial software development is clearly a naive attempt to gain the benefits of open source development without having to actually do any open source development. He identified five benefits supposedly derived from the Shared Source approach:

  1. a strong support community of developers
  2. promote collaboration and interoperability while supporting innovation and healthy competition
  3. promotes the growth of a profitable business
  4. level of research and development investment drives resources for future innovation
  5. provides product and source access without jeopardizing the intellectual property rights of those who create or use the software

The truth of the matter:

  1. Of course, Microsoft has always benefited from something like “a strong support community of developers”, but his meaning in this case seems to target the kind of developer community support one gets from an open source development model — which is not even slightly the same thing. In a Microsoft software project, something is produced behind closed doors and presented to the world (for a price). Others then develop additional tools that fit on or around that piece of software that came out of Microsoft’s development shop. There is no really direct developer support from the community for the software itself. In an open source software project, a strong developer community contributes to the source for the project, drawing on the abilities, free time, and dedication of a lot of people who like your project. This happens because people feel invested in the project, and feel a sense of “ownership” in a broader sense in the project as a whole. That’s not really something that’s easily achieved when you don’t let people directly modify the software, acquire it for free if need be, and so on. This Shared Source initiative eliminates the single most important factor in fostering direct developer support within a community of users: that sense of shared ownership.
  2. Promoting collaboration and interoperability while supporting innovation and healthy competition is just code for for “getting direct developer support and helping third-party developers work together, but without giving up proprietary control of our source code so nobody else can use it in ways we don’t approve”. In Microsoft’s version of the English language, “innovation” means bureaucratic, commercial software development, and “healthy competition” means “people can compete with each other all they like but, dammit, we won’t let them compete with us”.
  3. Promoting the growth of a profitable business is just repetition of the intent behind the second half of the previous statement.
  4. Microsoft’s notion of innovation is that it comes at great expense, under carefully controlled, bureaucratically managed corporate conditions, and can only happen when people are motivated (almost solely) by filthy lucre and organized by middle management. Oh, sure, one might quibble over the absolute truth of that translation of Mundie’s meaning, but in spirit there’s no real grounds for disagreement.
  5. I think the last point speaks for itself. The only real reason Microsoft cares about providing “product and source access” is, of course, to try to rub off some of the open source mojo to make itself more popular and successful — and when Mundie refers to “those who create or use the software”, he means the software that Microsoft produces, which in turn means Microsoft as the corporate “creator” of the software. Users’ rights, of course, amount to the “right” to get software from Microsoft through channels of Microsoft’s choosing, at Microsoft’s price.

Nowhere in there do I see anything that suggests there’s anything going on but a scam — and an ideological attack on the Free Software faithful. The speech as a whole is ostensibly about commercial software benefits in harmony with some corporate conception of what constitutes positive open source development, and in opposition to this dangerous and undisciplined notion of “open source” software that currently dominates the use of the term. In reality, however, it’s just a combination of an advertisement for Microsoft with an attack on the GPL in particular and copyleft licensing in general.

He spends paragraph after paragraph attacking the GPL by name, on the basis that it represents a faulty business model and acts like a communicative disease that “poses a threat to the intellectual property rights of any organization that makes use of it.” Clearly, Mundie is an anti-GPL zealot who has utterly lost the plot, and Steve Ballmer obviously never knew the plot in the first place. It seems likely that this state of affairs is tied directly to the fear of MS Windows market share being undermined by Linux-based OSes, and using the GPL as a convenient “fatal flaw” against which the corporation can direct its negative marketing efforts.

The extremes are pretty well covered. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The truth is that it is extremely difficult to build a conventional, copyright dependent business model solely around software licensed under the terms of the GPL. The truth is also that the purely closed source model of commercial software development — or even a shared source model, where the benefits of truly open source licensing models are lacking for both the vendor and the user — limits the possible success of the software in the market, endows it with an aura of uncertainty about its future, restricts third-party support, and provides none of the assurances of peer review.

Both approaches to a widget-sales copyright dependent business model, taken alone, are damaging to both the business and the customer. Put them together, however, and you have a winning combination for the business: core functionality that cannot (easily) be had from anyone else, because the secrets of their construction are jealously guarded, plus goodwill and community development support on components whose operation aren’t worthy of secrecy without allowing competing businesses to improve upon them, unless those competitors are willing to benefit your business as much as theirs in the process. If those copyleft components were developed entirely in-house, in fact, they can be used with closed source code and sold as part of a proprietary package, with additional improvements also developed in-house that are not available as part of the open source package — because the business owns the copyright, and makes the decision about how, when, and to whom to license the code.

In fact, for software developed in-house by a market dominance oriented corporation seeking anticompetitive advantages over other software providers, the smart play is to use an entirely new, in-house copyleft license. License compatibility with another copyleft license is a bad idea all around, because that compatibility allows too much opportunity for competition from the open source community itself, and (luckily for corporate users of custom copyleft licenses) any two copyleft licenses are, by default, naturally incompatible. Sun’s ZFS is a prime example; it uses a copyleft license, incompatible with the GPL, which means it is difficult to incorporate as fully into a Linux distribution as some would like because ZFS support cannot be incorporated into the GPLed kernel and distributed to others. If others make improvements to ZFS, however, Oracle — the company that bought Sun — gets to reap the rewards of an open source development model, as Sun did before Oracle acquired its assets.

Ultimately, it is corporations that have realized the benefits of this kind of business model that gain the most measurable benefit from copyleft software licensing. It is also in the best interests of such organizations — corporations that prefer GPLed software when using code written by someone else, custom copyleft licensed code when releasing code for open source development, and strong copyright enforcement for “competitive advantage” — for organizations like the FSF and Microsoft to very publicly go at each others’ throats. This makes the GPL and Free Software crowd look like crazies to people who like their business models traditional and restrictive, makes Microsoft look like an evil empire to people who like open source software development, and makes the corporations who straddle the line look good by comparison to them both: “open source friendly” and “enterprise worthy” at the same time.

It appears to be in the best interests of all three groups, considering their current goals, to ignore and marginalize copyfree licensing and the software distributed under copyfree terms (such as the BSD Unix systems) as much as possible, in each case almost entirely for marketing purposes. This leads to all kinds of shenanigans, some more obvious than others. The most common that I’ve noticed include Microsoft’s incessant targeting of the GPL as “evil” and the tendency of GNU/Linux and Free Software advocates to wear ideological blinders. Only three groups would actually benefit from stronger, more visible copyfree advocacy (and counter-advocacy for copyleft and copyright policies):

  • Users
  • Independent Developers and Teams
  • Relatively Honest Businesses

Maybe I’ll talk about that later.


  1. […] changes that dynamic, as does the way the software industry (influenced by corporate culture, the environment engendered by strong copyright law, and other social and economic environmental factors). Perhaps more importantly for explaining the […]

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  3. The GPL business model you mention has a buzzword now, it’s called Open Core. The interplay between business and open source is a bit more complex than you make it out to be, for example, Apple supports BSD-licensed projects like WebKit and llvm. Also, Google has since released a lot of copyfree projects, including some major ones like Chromium and Android. And whatever the motivations of Sun with the CDDL, independent contributors can always choose not to sign Sun’s contributor agreement and keep their patches in a fork instead, possibly under different licensing since the CDDL allows that if the outside patches create a new file.

    Comment by Ajay — 30 July 2010 @ 08:45

  4. The GPL business model you mention has a buzzword now, it’s called Open Core.

    There’s always a new buzzword on the horizon. I heard this one for the first time more than a year ago, but well after I wrote BSD/Copyfree vs. Corporate Copyleft.

    The interplay between business and open source is a bit more complex than you make it out to be

    I certainly did not intend to suggest that the relationships between corporate commercial interests and open source software were the only relationships between these distinct phenomena. As such, I didn’t intend to exclude the examples you provided — just to focus on the examples I provided.

    Google has since released a lot of copyfree projects, including some major ones like Chromium and Android.

    I actually use both these days. I have an Android smartphone in my pocket and Chromium on the sole MS Windows system I currently own. I’ll surely install Chromium on this FreeBSD laptop the moment it makes it into ports (which, it appears, will happen this year). There are a lot of smaller and/or less widely known Google projects using copyfree licensing as well, including stuff like RatProxy, Keyczar, Native Client, skipfish, and the Go language.

    Speaking of Chromium, I’ve been in touch (quite a bit lately) with the guy currently managing the project to produce a port of it for FreeBSD. He’s looking to take an open core approach to making money off the port, by offering closed source enhancements to “subscribers” and opening each of them a year after introducing them to subscribers. It’s an interesting approach, but I’m a little skeptical about its potential for success, given the niche market he’s targeting. Time will tell, I suppose — and he may intend to extend his target market into other areas as well.

    And whatever the motivations of Sun with the CDDL, independent contributors can always choose not to sign Sun’s contributor agreement and keep their patches in a fork instead, possibly under different licensing since the CDDL allows that if the outside patches create a new file.

    This is true — but in practice, it seems to be the case that, given that choice, most developers will either assign copyright or just not produce patches for a project at all. As I understand it, the whole point of the allowances for patch files under other licenses was to quell a rising revolt amongst open source developers who wanted to be able to combine CDDL software with GPL software and simply couldn’t grasp the fact that the GPL’s licensing model was, in and of itself, to blame for the licensing incompatibility.

    Anyway . . . thanks for contributing to discussion. I agree with everything you said here; if there’s a point of disagreement, it’s with the impression your words give that I said anything that actually contradicts your points.

    Comment by apotheon — 14 August 2010 @ 05:58

  5. […] from a libertarian perspective and all of it applies to the licenses of Firefox. See for example Chad Perrin here and Stephan Kinsella here and here.Firefox takes the same HTML5 format support strategy as Opera […]

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