Data Portability, not Open Source?

Is it time for the GPL to die?

Alasdair Allan


During the early days of the open source movement, when the idea of free and open software was newer—when most software was proprietary, and access to software itself was a scare resource—the GPL license turned out to be an important lever on the world.

It was important that Linux used the GPL, because Linux, and everything that came along with it, was the vehicle we used to get the idea of open source into those larger companies who were resistant to it. Linux it turned out, was too useful to ignore.

But time passed, and something interesting happened, open source won. The license wars are over now, and anyone that tells you otherwise isn’t comfortable with even small compromises. It’s done. Those particular battles are over and don’t have to be fought again, because the place where we are today isn’t the same place we were in thirty years ago.

The dangers we face today aren’t the same.

I’d argue that the GPL is now far less important today than it was thirty years ago, when we were fighting the first rounds in the war against proprietary software and vendor lock in. Thirty years is a long time, and in that time the Internet has changed pretty much everything. Access to software is no longer difficult, access to source code is common. Common enough, at least, if you’re happy with small compromises.

Anecdotally, I think that most younger developers are now opting for MIT or BSD licenses over the GPL, and although it isn’t entirely clear why that’s the case, it I’d argue that it’s down to pragmatism. The realisation that open source isn’t the most important thing in the world, and that it’s okay to pay for software, at least some of the time.

Permissive, rather than copyleft, licences now seem to dominate. I’d even argue that the ideas embodied in the GPL are hurting free and open software, that to make further progress we need to move away from the ideas embodied by the GPL. Which of course brings the question of what we want, of what we’re making progress towards, right to the fore.