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shlomi-fish-homepage / t2 / philosophy / computers / open-source / gpl-bsd-and-suckerism / index.html.wml

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<latemp_subject "The GPL, the BSD Licence, and Being a Sucker" />

<h2>Introduction</h2>

<p>
I wrote this essay as a way to clarify my position on the choice of a licence
for one’s open-source project and how it relates to being a sucker.
</p>

<h2>Dates</h2>

<dl>
<dt>Published:</dt>
<dd>27-September-2005</dd>
<dt>Translated to English:</dt>
<dd>15-October-2005</dd>
<dt>Last Modified:</dt>
<dd>10-April-2011</dd>
</dl>

<h2 id="text">The Essay Itself</h2>

<p>
At <a href="http://linmagazine.co.il/node/view/11659">this (Hebrew)
discussion in Linmagazine.co.il</a>, a claim was made that people who
distribute code that they wrote under BSD-style licences are suckers, while
people who distribute their code under <a href="http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html">the GPL (GNU General Public Licence)</a>
are not, since they make sure no one will make a proprietary use of their code. In this essay, I’d like to reply to this in
a rational manner. (As opposed to the flamefest in the original discussion).
</p>

<p>
First, let’s understand when a person is a “sucker”. If I went to the mall
and bought peanuts for 20 dollars per 100 grams, then I’m a sucker. That’s
because peanuts should be considerably cheaper. But if I went with my friend
to a mall, and he didn’t have money and I bought him food, then was I a sucker?
</p>

<p>
The answer is an absolute “No”. Helping your neighbour does not count as being
a sucker. I’m the last person that will claim that a person is obliged to
help his friend, the poor, or in general sacrifice something for a “noble”
cause. (see
<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectivist_philosophy">Objectivism</a>).
But if a person donates (time, money, property, etc.) to someone else he knows
well, or for a cause he relates to, rationally and out of his or her own
free will, does this makes him a sucker?
</p>

<p>
Hell no! It is obvious that an activity such as this is welcome. You always
feel good when you help another, and it is always nice to receive
something when the receiver has a need. I wouldn’t want to live in a society
where everyone is selfish and is unwilling to help others at times of need.
(And those who know me can testify that I have helped others a lot in the past
and still am helping others when they need help.)
[<a href="#footnote1">1</a>].
</p>

<p>
How does it relate to the GPL and the BSD? It is obvious that a person who
releases code under an open-source licence is contributing for the common good.
(albeit he may sometimes have an Egoistical Interest to do it). If you’re
really selfish, (or at least not in an Altruistic mood) then you’ll probably
want to sell a software that you have written, albeit you may want to make
sure the source code is viewable. Now, would using an LGPL licence (that
allows linking to proprietary code) be a suckery act?
</p>

<p>
It isn’t that either. It’s possible that the originator has an interest or a
desire that people will do a commercial use of his code. Whether it’s
integration into proprietary code (without non-trivial changes), or even
distributing code based on these changes. Why? If I wrote a library or a
module, then it is possible that I’ll want that it people will make the
largest possible use of it. That’s because when I wrote the library, I meant to
solve a certain problem and I don’t have interest that people will write their
own code that solves this problem times and again, only because they desire or
need to distribute it as part of a non-open-source software.
</p>

<p>
Very well, so programmers of GPLed or LGPLed code are not suckers. But are
programmers of software under BSD-style licences so? Again, they are not.
First of all, they helped their neighbour (which naturally also includes
commercial companies) and not just did a “suckery” act. Secondly, it is
possible that they want people to integrate and modify this code. Perhaps
because they want it to be part of an embedded software. Perhaps they want to
have proprietary derived products that they can draw ideas and inspiration
from. And perhaps they (and I included) just don’t want to worry what possible
illegal use people make of their code. If you release a code under the Public
Domain, then there’s a very small chance that someone will violate its licence.
If you release it under the GPL, then <a
href="http://gpl-violations.org/">there can be</a>. I have enough worries as
it is, and I don’t need more worries of what “malicious” use people are doing
with my software. (Not to mention that I feel good if something like that
happens because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.).
</p>

<p>
Thus, releasing a code under a non-GPLed licence does not make one a sucker.
I’m not saying that people who release GPLed code are hypocrites or bastards
(or just plain selfish). There are occasions, that the GPL is much
more suitable than a different licence, and there are opposite occasions.
Determining which licence is suitable when, is a completely different issue,
which won’t be covered here.
</p>
<p>
For further reading see:
</p>
<ol>
<li>
<a href="http://ken.coar.org/musings/free-source.html">Ken’s Musings about
Free Software and Open Source</a> - an essay of Ken Coar, one of the core
members of <a href="http://www.apache.org/">the Apache project</a>. Towards
the end he explains why he prefers BSD-like licences.
</li>
<li>
<a href="http://people.freebsd.org/~phk/">The homepage of Poul-Henning Kamp</a>
where he discusses his BSD-like “Beerware” licence.
</li>
<li>
<a href="http://groups.yahoo.com/group/hackers-il/message/2809">The Well and
the Wall</a> - an essay I wrote as a result of reading
<a href="http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/">the <i>Cathedral
and the Bazaar</i></a> on a pet project of mine, and why it turned out that the
Public Domain licensing I chose for it, was ideal in this circumstance.
</li>
<li>
<a href="http://www.advogato.org/person/bagder/diary.html?start=188">An
entry in Daniel Stenberg’s diary</a> echoing his sentiments with the release
of a new version of cURL and libcurl, that are distributed under a BSD-style
licence.
</li>
</ol>

<p>
If people will produce more code (or documentation or graphics or whatever)
instead of labelling other people that are also passionately working on code,
just because of its choice of licensing, the world will turn around a great
deal faster. So until then, hack on!
</p>

<p>
I’d like to thank Omer Zak and Dotan Kamber who read early drafts of this
essay and gave some useful commentary.
</p>

<p>
<b id="footnote1">Footnote 1</b>:
Some people mistakenly believe that Selfishness and Selflessness are the only
two possible strategies. But <a href="http://www.neo-tech.com/neotech/advantages/advantage14.html">there
is a third option - Rational Self Growth</a>.
</p>

<h2 id="coverage">Coverage</h2>

<ul>
<li>
<a href="http://linmagazine.co.il/node/view/11835">The Hebrew original of this
essay on Linmagazine.co.il</a> - plus some discussion.
</li>
</ul>

<h2 id="licence">Licence</h2>

<cc_by_british_blurb year="2005" />