Society is built on exchange. One particular form of exchange that
we're genetically wired for is reciprocal altruism: speculative
generosity with expectation of future payoff.
Open Source is a textbook example of reciprocal altruism. But this
leaves the Open Source community vulnerable to parasitism.
(This term comes from game theory; I'm not trying to insult anyone.)
In a small group, trust comes from repeated interactions, and personal
experience is adequate to recognize parasites and avoid them. But in
a large group, interactions between any two people are often indirect
and/or infrequent. Something more than experience is needed to
engender trust between people who don't know each other, and who may
never even meet.
Therefore, any large group must evolve a technology of
trust. If it doesn't do so, it will fall victim to rampant
parasitism, which will cause inefficiency, which will eventually bring
stagnation and failure to compete -- that is, death.
The GPL is a technology of trust. Contributors to GPL'd
projects trust that the GPL -- which depends on law,
itself a technology of trust -- will prevent parasitism. They
trust that if they contribute to a project, they will have
access to the valuable goods built on their own work. So, while GPL'd
projects can have forks, they can't have proprietary forks.
And that makes all the difference.
This analysis may seem simple or even obvious. But its
implications are far-reaching.
1. The GPL will eventually dominate Open Source (if it doesn't
already). Both analysis and observation point to the GPL, or
something like it, as the destiny of Open Source. More than any other
current license, the GPL discourages parasitism; thus it enhances
efficiency; thus it helps a culture outcompete rivals whose
technologies of trust are less advanced. By making its host culture
successful, the GPL -- or some future license built on it -- will
finally win out.
2. We must preserve the GPL, for the sake of the community.
When Microsoft attacks the GPL, it would be tempting for those of us
who don't identify with ``Free Software'' to use as our primary reply
that ``Open Source is more than the GPL.'' That would be a mistake.
The GPL's peculiar strengths are crucial in the Open Source
community's competition with other cultures who would love to see Open
Source, let alone Free Software, gone and forgotten.
3. The GPL is good for business. Companies that use the GPL
are neither foolish nor stupid. They simply want to trust that
other companies won't be able to take unfair advantage of them, and
the GPL gives them that immediate security while simultaneously
allowing open cooperation. And in the general case, the GPL is a
friend of business because it makes new and better efficiencies
possible, and economies thrive on new and better efficiencies.
(On the other hand, we can agree with Microsoft that the GPL is bad
for their current business. We can then proceed to use
Microsoft's favorite word as we reply: Innovation won't stop
just because you're not ready for it. The printing press was a
good thing, after all, even though it forced professional scribes to
change their business model. Adapt or die.)
In summary: We in the Open Source community need to stand with the
FSF and defend the GPL against all comers -- not merely as a tactical
move, but because the GPL is a valuable technology of trust. To
outcompete other cultures, we must adopt technologies that work. And
the GPL works.
-- Chip Salzenberg <email@example.com>, member of the board of the Open Source Initiative