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The sad decline of copyleft software licenses? :(
The sad decline of copyleft software licenses? :(
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:
2. Cancerous (!!!)
3. Harmful to the "open source movement/principles/ethos"
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
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 "
Where  is the book:
St Laurent AM. Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing.
O'Reilly Media; 2004. http://www.oreilly.com/openbook/osfreesoft/book/.
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.
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
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
(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
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!
- The sad decline of copyleft software licenses? :(,
Pen-Yuan Hsing <=