Is GPL licensing in decline?

As Apache licenses proliferate, two warring camps have formed over whether the GPL is or isn't falling out of favor

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Two presentations were especially notable. Red Hat lawyer Richard Fontana mounted a spirited and entertaining call for fresh focus on the problems the GPL faces in adoption by new projects, especially in the cloud. FSF executive director John Sullivan was more serious, with a presentation raising questions about the data Aslett used and suggesting that data derived by analyzing licensing in the Debian distribution of GNU/Linux showed a growth, not a decline in GPL adoption. Aslett's response accepted criticism of his numbers, while expressing surprise that Sullivan was placing much weight on his analysis of Debian, a surprised shared by the Debian project leader Stefano Zacchiroli.

The probable reality
To sum all that up, the best answer to the question of the GPL's decline: It depends on what you're looking for. If you're interested in commercial exploitation of open source, the statistics you select say yes, there's a steady drift to permissive licenses. If you're focused on software freedom advocacy and ideology, the statistics appear unreliable and even hint that GPL is increasing. And for those of us trying to take in both outlooks? Well, it needs interpretation!

I don't agree with Bruce Byfield's assertions that it's the result of a sequence of strategic errors by the FSF. I also don't agree with analyst Donnie Berkholz (who appears to break Fleury's Rule of not speaking for others you don't know) that the GPL isn't needed any more. What we're really seeing here is a correction to an aberration that arose in the glory years of the growth of commercial open source strategies and startups in the middle of the last decade. The peak in GPL usage in commercial open source in 2005 is especially clear from the graphs in Aslett's first report. This effect is normalization following the removal of an artificial stimulus; it's not a decline.

Around that time, companies were flocking to open source for the first time and choosing to ape the strategy of database company MySQL, who selected the GPL not to promote Stallman's vision of digital liberty but rather to exploit the fears of corporate legal advisors about the GPL. While open source licenses offer everyone the freedom to use the software for any purpose, many companies were concerned that the GPL might force them to open up all their internal workings to the world.

They asked for legal advice, and as always happens when you ask your lawyer for business advice (instead of making business decisions and asking your lawyer to help you achieve them legally) they were told to play it safe and buy a proprietary license to MySQL. This dual-license model depends on two details: the software developer owning all the copyrights so that they can provide different license terms for it to paying and nonpaying users, and the use of the scariest open source license possible in the eyes of inexperienced legal advisers.

As the market has developed, businesses have evolved their strategies, and more and more legal advisers in business have gained an understanding of open source. As a result, the effectiveness of strategies involving scaring customers into buying proprietary licenses for open source software has declined. At the same time, the market has needed more and more mature strategies for working on open source. Often -- as is now the case in cloud computing, where there are high stakes and consequent high politics -- these strategies involve working with others rather than maintaining tight control for sole exploitation.

The removal of the imperative to scare customers into paying has resulted in commercial open source exploiters swinging to the opposite extreme and picking permissive licenses to allow multivendor involvement, as both O'Grady and Aslett noted. That's why newcomers are picking permissive licenses rather than copyleft ones. But the free software movement still exists and is still strong.

The GPL is growing too, with new work and new lines of code being constantly released by believers in copyleft. In particular, innovative and energetic distributed projects are using GPL-family licenses, like Freedom Box, the Tahoe-LAFS filesystem, MediaGoblin, SparkleShare, and many others you probably haven't heard of unless you watch the free software world. Many of these projects have businesses associated with them; commercial open source is not synonymous with permissive licensing.

The apparent conflict between these two licensing approaches seems to me to be more a manufactured dichotomy, a reflection of the age-old disagreement about which freedom should be sacrificed to facilitate the rest -- the freedom to close open source, or the freedom to use software derived from open source. Outside that conflict, both permissive and copyleft licensing remain strong and growing, just like open source.

This article, "Is GPL licensing in decline?," was originally published at Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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