It’s always good when respected open source luminaries such as Matt Asay begin to question long held open source software truths.  Matt wonders whether the GNU General Public License is “an alternative way to release proprietary software?”  Matt argues:

“With the Web making open-source licensing largely irrelevant, anyway, it’s a good time to evaluate the merits of the two dominant open-source-licensing approaches (GPL & the Apache Software License). For this moment in time, they’re essentially equivalent, at least to end users and Web developers, neither of which is required to contribute back derivative works.”

Matt uses Eric Raymond’s post titled “The Economic Case Against the GPL” to bolster his evolving view that the Apache Software License (ASL) is a more effective license for the future of open source than the GPL.

Before writing off the GPL in the long run, there are three situations to consider.  They all deal with the viability of the open source vendor considering the GPL vs. ASL.

1. Does the GPL license encourage customers to purchase a license more so than the ASL would?

2. Does the GPL license encourage partners and/or OEMs to purchase a license more so than the ASL would?

3. Does the GPL protect the open source vendor’s IP against a (larger) competitor more so than the ASL would?

1. Customers:
I was going to argue that the GPL encourages customers to pay for the software more so than the ASL does.  But that’s false, and if it isn’t today, it will be in 5 years.  There was a time when inside counsel would recommend their companies stay away from using GPL software for fear of the GPL’s viral nature.  Today, customers understand that the viral nature of the GPL is only applied if the GPL software is modified and distributed outside of the company’s walls.  The overwhelming majority of enterprises and business using open source products do not satisfy both of these requirements.  As a result, there is nothing inherent about the GPL that would drive higher open source vendor revenue than if the ASL was used.

2. Partners & OEMs:
Some ISVs, SIs and device manufacturers may want to use open source software within their final product without having to open source the product’s software.  In this situation, the GPL in conjunction with a commercial license will result in higher open source vendor revenue than the ASL in conjunction with a commercial license.

It is interesting that device manufacturers such as Cisco and Western Digital are using GNU/Linux in their products and are opting to open source their software versus paying a license fee and keep their software private.  I believe that device manufacturers are going to increasingly open up their software in ways that encourage the interested/skilled user base to tinker. So from a device manufacturer standpoint, I’d argue that there is little OSS vendor revenue difference in using the GPL vs. ASL.

Next, let’s consider ISVs and SIs.  On one hand you could argue that since software is going to be increasingly delivered through the mythical cloud, the GPL’s role as a stick to encourage a license purchase will diminish.  But I don’t believe that the enterprise world is moving to SaaS as fast as they hype would suggest.  For years, if not decades to come, the vast majority of ISV and SI delivered applications will be distributed to enterprises and installed on corporate servers as they are today.  As such, the GPL’s role in driving open source vendor revenue from ISVs and SIs will remain an important reason to select the GPL.

3. Hostile Competitors:
The final reason to use the GPL over the ASL is that the GPL provides better protection against competitors, especially larger ones, using the OSS code to compete with the open source vendor in question.  However, I could quote examples of GPL and ASL licensed open source products that have been forked to varying degrees by larger competitors.  In the two situations that come to mind, it can easily be argued that the forks have been unsuccessful.  The open source vendor’s brand has proved to be a more realistic barrier to entry than the license was thought to be.

I can think of only one business reason that an open source vendor would select the GPL over the ASL; namely, the revenue opportunity from ISVs and SIs who would rather pay for a commercial license than have to open source their own applications.

What do you think?

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PS: I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.”