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The sad decline of copyleft software licenses? :(

From: Pen-Yuan Hsing
Subject: The sad decline of copyleft software licenses? :(
Date: Tue, 22 Sep 2020 18:02:04 +0800
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(whew, finally changed my registration on this list to my FSF member alias address! :D)


I don't know if it's by chance, but recently I've read many an opinion claiming that copyleft free software licenses such as the GNU GPLv3 are, among other terrible qualities:

1. Viral
2. Cancerous (!!!)
3. Harmful to the "open source movement/principles/ethos"
4. Restrictive
5. Anti-social
6. Unfriendly
7. [other negative adjectives...]

Usually, the same people would advocate for the "permissive" set of free software licenses like the increasingly popular MIT license, or BSD, Apache, and so on. Some reasons I've seen are that these "permissive" licenses are easy to use so "you don't need to think about it", are highly compatible with other licenses, "truly open source", "truly free" because they don't come with any restrictions like the "restrictive" GPL, or that "history has clearly shown permissive licenses to be more successful and welcomed." Once, I asked a self-identified open source (not free software) advocate whether they're concerned "permissively" licensed code would be incorporated into proprietary software, and they said no: "If I create a piece of open source software, and it helps others even if that means it being used in proprietary products, I'm fine with that."

What prompted me to write this post is an academic paper I just saw:

Wilson, G., Bryan, J., Cranston, K., Kitzes, J., Nederbragt, L., & Teal, T. K. (2017). Good enough practices in scientific computing. PLOS Computational Biology, 13(6), e1005510.

This paper is licensed CC BY (which is commendable and sadly still rare in peer-reviewed academic literature, though I'd prefer CC BY-SA even more), and IMHO it's actually very good in recommending "good enough practices" so that scientists who are not programmers can begin to improve their scientific computing practices. Quick side-note: I have an academic science background and I can write a thesis lamenting the terrible state of software development in many academic disciplines. Physics/mathematics/astronomy are better for sure, but scientists in most fields are well-meaning but horrible programmers (if they can write code at all, many still use proprietary GUI spreadsheets to wrestle with huge datasets) who don't comment their own spaghetti code that manages to just squeak by (usually just once, before a reboot) to produce an analytical result just "worthy" enough of publication. And since they don't really know much about programming, many genuinely think that's adequate. So I can say with some confidence that the paper I just cited is already huge progress.

To their credit, the authors of this paper emphasise the importance of including a LICENSE with your code, which - believe it or not - most other "recommendations" in the scientific literature don't mention at all, effectively keeping tons of scientific code unintentionally proprietary.

Sadly, those authors also state:

"We recommend permissive software licenses rather than the GNU General Public License (GPL) because it is easier to integrate permissively licensed software into other projects; see chapter 3 in [17]"

Where [17] is the book:
St Laurent AM. Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing. O'Reilly Media; 2004.

The above was literally the only justification they gave for recommending a "permissive" license. Now, many scientists will just read this without critically considering its implications (somewhat ironic in itself) and use MIT (or similar) licenses for their code. In my opinion, that statement is misleading and gives the impression that the GNU GPL is somehow bad for code.

In case it's not already clear, I'm deeply disappointed by the almost complete lack of support I've seen for copyleft free software licenses. Other than perhaps some people on this mailing list, I have *literally* not interacted with any other human being who prefers copyleft licenses. Zero.

Also in case it's not clear, a value I hold deeply is to assume good faith and by default I truly respect other opinions regardless of how much I might disagree. Here the disagreement is regarding the nature of free software licenses, and it troubles me deeply.

My personal reason for desiring copyleft licenses is, in my opinion, simple: Software freedom is a value I hold dearly, and I want to ensure that freedom is perpetuated. In my view, the only "restriction" of a copyleft license is that it insists that freedoms are not infringed. On a high level, isn't a crucial mechanism for freedom to work the rule that "you are free to do anything as long as it doesn't infringe on other people's freedom?" Unless I am grossly mistaken, this is what a copyleft license does. Is that so bad, or "cancerous", as some might say? If anything, licenses such as the GNU GPL *protects* freedom, yet practically everyone I've ever talked to think it *limits* freedom. I totally understand why the FSF lists permissive licenses as free software-compliant, because they technically are free. But without protection of those freedoms, we have seen time and again how derivative works of free software have been locked up into proprietary products (with Apple's Mac OS lineage of operating systems perhaps being a famous example that derives much of its core from free software - some technically cool features, yes, but tragically proprietary and ultimately user-hostile).

At this point, if you also prefer copyleft licenses, I hope for your constructive thoughts on two sets of questions:

(1) WHAT are some common well-intentioned arguments YOU encounter for permissive licenses and against copyleft licenses? And what are your constructive responses?

(2) WHY do copyleft licenses seem to be in steep decline? What are positive, constructive solutions to encourage its adoption? Any big success stories other than the Linux kernel?

Or, if you do prefer permissive licenses, are you concerned about software using those licenses being used in, or made into, proprietary software? Are there concrete ways to secure software freedom with licenses such as MIT?

If there are lots of constructive responses to this post, I'd be happy to compile them into a FAQ of sorts and put them somewhere like the Libreplanet wiki or elsewhere. Ideally, I hope to foster some sort of curated and well-reasoned set of constructive arguments to advocate for copyleft licenses.

It goes without saying that I know this can be a contentious topic, but I know we are much better than starting flame wars and making personal attacks. So let's be excellent to each other. :)

Hope to learn from you!

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