It's time to say goodbye to the GPL

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2022-01-13 22:30:03

The trigger for this post is the reinstating of Richard Stallman, a very problematic character, to the board of the Free Software Foundation (FSF). I am appalled by this move, and join others in the call for his removal.

This occasion has caused me to reevaluate the position of the FSF in computing. It is the steward of the GNU project (a part of Linux distributions, loosely speaking), and of a family of software licenses centred around the GNU General Public License (GPL). These efforts are unfortunately tainted by Stallman’s behaviour. However, this is not what I actually want to talk about today.

In this post I argue that we should move away from the GPL and related licenses (LGPL, AGPL), for reasons that have nothing to do with Stallman, but simply because I think they have failed to achieve their purpose, and they are more trouble than they are worth.

First, brief background: the defining feature of the GPL family of licenses is the concept of copyleft, which states (roughly) that if you take some GPL-licensed code and modify it or build upon it, you must also make your modifications/extensions (known as a “derivative work”) freely available under the same license. This has the effect that the GPL’ed source code cannot be incorporated into closed-source software. At first glance, this seems like a great idea. So what is the problem?

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