Following threads from the Clipperz blog, I read this exchange of messages between Chris DiBona & Greg Stein of Google and a group of folks that want Google to host AGPL’d projects on Google Code. (I’d urge you to read the thread as it’s difficult to argue that Chris & Greg are being unreasonable).

As you know, the terms of the GPL only “kick in” when GPL’d code is distributed. Users/companies are not obliged to reveal their changes to GPL’d code unless the code is redistributed outside of their organization. The AGPL fixes this loophole.

Matt and some of the folks replying to Chris & Greg seem to think that Google is wearing its Evil Hat by restricting AGPL’d projects on Google Code. They believe that the growing use of AGPL’d by projects will prevent Google, (Yahoo, EBay, Amazon, or countless other companies that modify & use OSS without redistributing it) from using OSS without contributing their changes back.

I disagree ;-)

Let’s start with the various OSS projects that Google et al. pay their employees to work on, and the support, financially or otherwise, that these companies offer to OSS projects. We like to romanticize that OSS projects become solid products through the magical combination of thousands of non-affiliated contributors working for the greater good. The truth is that the majority of contributions, to the majority of leading OSS projects come from someone paid to do so by a vendor. Does anyone really think that Linux would be where it is now if not for IBM, HP, Oracle, Red Hat & Novell employees? Would PHP be where it is without Yahoo’s help? Would Firefox be where it is without the significant search-driven dollars that Google pays to Mozilla?

Second, which company in their right mind would open up its differentiated IT assets to competitors? If Linux, Apache HTTPD, PHP and MySQL had originally been licensed under the AGPL, I can almost guarantee that Google et al. would have paid for the right to make their own changes without having to contribute them back (as you can today with many dual-licensed OSS projects). Worst case, Google et al. may never have grown to their current state. Imagine if Google had to decide between closed-source software that they couldn’t modify, or open source software that they could modify, but those modifications would be seen by the competition. In both cases the lack of differentiation enabled by IT would have been enough to reconsider the business plan.

I’ve never been a fan of cutting off my nose to spite my face. Sadly, in the pursuit of “OSS purity”, the OSS community comes awful close to doing this all too often. I’m perfectly okay with Google et al. benefiting from OSS. If these vendors don’t contribute an equal value back to the OSS community through their own OSS efforts, I’m certain that they have added enough value to the lives of every IT user (OSS proponent or otherwise) to far offset any deficit from the use of OSS without “giving back enough”