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Does the GPL Hold Back Linux?

October 4th, 2005

I marked this post from a ZDNet blogger because when I first read it I got very upset. His thesis is that the GPL holds Linux back. I happen to be a fan of the GPL, so it’s not an argument to which I’m very sympathetic. However, recent GPL 3.0 discussions suggest a wise observer ought to listen to as many voices as possible… you just never know if something valuable might be said.

The problem with Mr. Murphy’s argument is that the proposition doesn’t follow the arguments. He starts with the idea that linux adoption has slowed, which I’m willing to grant for sake of argument, and posses the question as to why? He discards the popular theory of Microsoft as better innovator, which makes sense to me since there hasn’t been a Windows release since 2002. He advances the theory that as external factors like press popularity faded, internal issues became more apparent. Chief among those internal issues: the GPL.

But here’s where the argument falls apart. A direct quote is illustrative

Basically, legal issues, or the threat of legal issues, caused some key applications developers to back off Linux while the general negativism of Linux marketing caused many of the individuals whose innovations should have been driving Linux adoption to hang fire until MacOS X and Solaris for x86 under the CDDL came along.

So, if I get the theory right, because competitors who were losing business to Linux sued IBM on a contract claim and Microsoft went on a gang-busters publicity drive against the viral-GPL, people stopped adopting linux.

What I don’t understand is how the GPL is responsible? Microsoft was going to attack the underlying notion of opensource regardless of the license so long as it threatens their marketshare. SCO is suing under a contracts claim with only incidental GPL claims. So those two cases can’t be evidence of the GPL holding back Linux… and as for supposed legal uncertainty, license drafters will tell you that the clauses which comprise most tech agreements have not been tested by courts, so there is no greater uncertainty with the GPL than something you can get drafted by Preston, Gates, and Ellis. More importantly, application developers can write for Linux without getting anywhere near GPL’ed code. Many proprietary software products work on Linux.

The GPL certainly has it’s issues, and some of the FOSS luminaries have recently taken aim at the idea of mandatory share-a-like clauses (the heart of the BSD v. GPL debate) but I don’t see how the GPL is what is holding back Linux. The GPL single-handedly makes FOSS development possible by reducing transaction costs (putting aspiring FOSS lawyers like myself out of business) and creating a broad assortment of code from which development can take place. Without the GPL, chaos would rule the sharing of code, requiring expensive lawyers, and serve to undermine Linux far more than any suspected legal uncertainty.

probonogeek Uncategorized

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