GPL, The 2-clause BSD of Network Services

Thursday 4 September 2008 by Bradley M. Kuhn

Crossposted with autonomo.us.

So often, a particular strategy becomes dogma. Copyleft licensing constantly allures us in this manner. Every long-term software freedom advocate I have ever known — myself included — has spent periods of time slipping on the comfortable shoes of belief that copyleft is the central catalyst for software freedom.

Copyleft indeed remains a successful strategy in maximizing software freedom because it backs up a community consensus on software sharing with the protection of the law. However, most people do not comply with the GPL merely because they fear the consequences of copyright infringement. Rather, they comply for altruistic reasons: because it advances their own freedom and the freedom of the people around them.

Indeed, it is so important to remember that many of the FLOSS programs we use every day are not copylefted, and do not actually have any long-term proprietary forks (for me, Subversion, Trac and Twisted come to mind quickly). Examples like this helped me to again re-eradicate some clouded thinking about copyleft as central tenant.

With this mindset fresh, Mike Linksvayer and I had an excellent discussion last month that solidified this connection to network services, and specifically, the licenses for network services software. Many GPL'd network service software give no source to users, but that may have little to do with the authors' “failure to upgrade” to the AGPL. In other words, the non-source availability of network service applications that are otherwise licensed in freedom is probably unrelated to the lack of network-freedom provisions in the license.

In fact, more likely, the network service world now mimics the early days of the BSD licenses. Deployers are “proprietarizing” by default merely because there is no social effect to encourage release of modified source. Often, they likely haven't considered the complex issues of network service freedom, and are following the common existing practices. Advent of the GPL did help encourage software sharing in the community, but the general change in social standards that accompanied the GPL probably had a more substantial impact.

Therefore, improved social standards will help improve source sharing in network services. We need to encourage, and more importantly, make it easy for network service deployers to make source of network applications available, regardless of their particular FLOSS license. No existing non-AGPL FLOSS licenses prohibit making the source available to network users. Network providers can and should simply do it voluntarily out of respect for their users. Developers of network service software, even if they do not choose the AGPL, should make it easy for the deployers to give source to their users. I hope to assist in this regard more directly before the end of 2008.

Posted on Thursday 4 September 2008 at 12:17 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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