Eric S. Raymond speaks heresy.

Recently my local LUG (LILUG) invited Eric S. Raymond (ESR) to come and speak. For those of you who are not familiar with ESR, he is one of the three largest icons of the Open Source/Free Software movement. Needless to say, it was an honor so see him speak. For the most part, his talk was quite tame but one of the points he raised seemed quite controversial. According to him the GPL and other viral licenses are no longer needed as they do more harm than good to the community. I don't want to put words into his mouth so I've transcribed what he said during the talk. You can view the ESR Q/A talk in its entirety, this specific excerpt is about 45 minutes into the video.

What is the point of being famous and respected if you can't speak heresy about your own movement. What is the point?

One of my heretical opinions is that we worry way too much about licensing. And in particular; I don't think we really need reciprocal licensing. I don't think we need licenses like the GPL, that punish people for taking code closed-source. Let me explain what I think. And then I'll explain [why] the fact we don't actually need those [licenses] matters.

I don't think we need them because. There has been a fair amount of economic analysis done in the last 10 years, significant amount of it has been done by, well, me. Which seems to demonstrate that open source is what the economist call a more efficient mode of production use, superior mode of production. You get better investment, better return out of the resources you invested by doing open source development than closed source development. In particular, there have been a number of occasions on which people have taken open source products that were reasonable successful, and just taken them closed. Effectively putting them under proprietary control, proprietary licensing and then tried to make a business model out of that. They generally fail. And the reason they fail is pretty simple. That is because when you take a product closed, you are now limited to what ever small number of developers that your corporation can afford to hire. The open source community that you just turned your back on does not, they have more people than you. They can put out releases more frequently, getting more user feedback. So the suggestion is, simply because of the numerical dynamics of the process: taking open software closed is something that the market is going to punish. You are going to lose. The inefficiencies inherent in closed source development are eventually going to ambush you, going to [inaudible] you, and your are not going to have a business model or product anymore. We've seen this happened number of times.

But now, lets look at the implications of taking this seriously. The question I found myself asking is: if the market punished people for taking open source closed, then why do our licenses need to punish people for taking open source closed? That is why I don't think you really need GPL or a reciprocal licenses anymore. It is attempting to prevent the behavior that the market punishes anyway. That attempt has a downside, the downside is that people, especially lawyers, especially corporate bosses look at the GPL and experience fear. Fear that all of their corporate secrets, business knowledge, and special sauce will suddenly be everted to the outside world by some inadvertent slip by some internal code. I think that fear is now costing us more than the threat of [inaudible]. And that is why I don't we need the GPL anymore.

-- Eric S. Raymond

Eric then went on to say that the BSD license is a good alternative to the GPL. This has sparked a heated discussion on the Free Software Round Table (FSRT) radio shows mailing list. While one can admire of the simplicity and clarity of the license it seems far fetched to say that it should be replacing the GPL. While yes there are economical incentive for corporations to keep code Open Source but the relative cost of closing the source depends largely on the size of company. Yes some small companies will not be able to afford to keep a code base alive with internal/contracted developers for larger companies the costs are a lot easier to digest.

Prime example of such a large company is Apple. In 2001 Apple came out with a completely new version of its operating system, MAC OS X. Although a successor to MAC OS 9, it was very different. OS X borrowed a very large code base from the BSDs, and some (pretty much everything but Darwin) of the code was effectively closed. This has not prevented Apple or OS X from thriving.

From the other end of the spectrum, are the companies such as MySQL AB which produce Free Software but also sell closed source licenses of the same code for a 'living.' There is a market for this, it exists because of those scared lawyers and corporate bosses. Killing the GPL would effectively kill this market, as a result development on some of these projects would slow down significantly.

The Open Source/Free Software movement is thriving, it does not mean its a good time to kill the GPL. In fact I don't think there will ever be a time when killing the GPL will do more good than harm.

lilug  news  software  2009-03-23T11:30:14-04:00