The subject line's taken from an essay I've read recently in O'Reilly's Peer-to-Peer book.
I agree with those posters who've pointed out that Linux doesn't need business--to a point. But I think some confusion arises over the slight, but widening, gap between "business" and "capitalism".
Business I'll define as simply economic activity: the creation, exchange, and distribution of property. A capitalist business is a particular mode of economic organization, predicated on a particular kind of property--or rather, on a particular interpretation of what property is.
And yes, the GPL is quite ingeniously problematic to a capitalist business. Why? Because it prevents any one organization from taking control of the value represented by the GPL'ed work, and turning that value into capital. Capital, being defined in the main as being a form of property over which the owner has been granted absolute control by the state.
I know from hard experience that a) most people don't understand the connection between property and the nation-state and b) the idea of a kind of property that isn't controlled absolutely by someone is very difficult to understand. It's too bad, because it's been, historically, an indispensible part of all human communities. You might guess I'm referring to "the commons".
Everyone knows the commons nowadays from an essay written by Garrett Hardin in 1968 called "The Tragedy of the Commons". In that essay, Hardin argued that when private individuals pursuing their own ends are let loose in a space owned by no one, social property is abused until destroyed. "Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all" is the most memorable formulation.
But the digital environment changes that, mostly by subverting its most fundamental predicate: that the resources of the commons are limited, and consumed by use.
The GPL is a new form of property, "common" property reborn in the most unlikely of places--a computer, or rather, a network of computers. The transaction cost of exchanging GPL'ed property is neglible. And that's its strength.
So what I'm saying is that the difficulties that the "business world"--i.e. the capitalist establishment--has with the GPL is the same sort of problem they have with Napster. And yet the economic proposition of Napster, from a user's point of view, is quite compelling. Share a little bit of information, at little cost to yourself, and you gain your investment back a million-fold (technically, there's an infinite gain since the transaction costs you nothing, or at most, time and bandwidth).
Isn't that the benefit of the GPL? It makes wonderful sense to me, as a nascent hacker. I'm working on the core of an piece of software right now that I will release, when it has a chance of hell of attracting interest, under the GPL.
If it proves worthy, the help I could get on the project makes possible what was simply impossible for me as an individual--the full development of an idea I think is cool. No startup costs. And since the idea is one that actually works better when more people use it, opening the source just makes sense.
That's the benefit of open source, anyway. The specific benefit of the GPL is that it defends the commons I have enjoyed, profoundly, for the last three years. If I contribute to the commons, by Crom its my right to make sure my contribution stays in the commons. If it doesn't, then that is the true piracy, not the so called "parasites" that download freed software and only use it, not write it. Closing off code, based on my work, that is real potential value bleeding off into the closed beyond.
Let me point out something here. My argument might sound similar to a capitalist's at precisely this point--"hey, I have created this value, and if you want to share in the fruits of working with my valuable property you're going to do it on my terms!". This might even sound like irony, or contradiction. But the difference is that the only control I assert over "my" property is that no one else may assert control over it. The economic world is tipped on its head, when scarcity is no longer the issue.
I've always thought that property should be defined as the amount of active, personal responsibility one takes for things. Capitalists are too absolutist about property, and it's beginning to show.
One might argue that property is something one should be able to make money off of. I won't argue, but the kind of value I get back from the GPL isn't monetary, except in the savings I get from not shelling out for Microsoft products. Let people write stuff under closed licenses! Or, if you're really charitable, let someone else close up and profit from your work! Doesn't really make sense to me, but some capitalists are so idealistic...
Money loses value in an environment where things are plentiful and can be had for free. What is much more valuable is the organization of people to create new and interesting things. And as money loses its meaning, so too does theft. Or rather, the theft comes not from taking property and using it, but from hoarding it.
Shoot, parasites are great, especially when they actually write, um, bug reports! (whoops, I try to avoid puns.)
My computing needs have been met, and exceeded, by Linux and the GNU software. I've learned, at no cost, much from source code. I'm inspired to contribute to a community that has been so effective at multiplying the efforts of its contributors back a thousandfold.
Do you see, then, that closed source is now the tragedy of the commons? That the thin, paradoxical legal shield of the GPL forms the wall to a resonating chamber? Enter the commons, share or don't share, but be assured that anything you do contribute (of value...) will come back to you, multiplied and improved.
Hrmph. Stallman is an irascible old bastard. And by Jove he deserves his props. For the GPL, if nothing else!
"As I would not be a slave, so would I not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy." Abraham Lincoln