Saturday, January 5, 2008

Destroying the GPL from the inside

Honestly I don't think it will be done, but there is a way. Simply put, the GPL is a copyright license which is it's strength and it's achillies heel. For years publishing companies and our friends at the RIAA and MPAA among others have pushed for longer and longer copyright lives so that they can reap the rewards from other people's work for a longer period of time. So why not turn things on their heads a bit? What I am talking about has actually already been proposed, and definitely not my idea.

Step 1: Categorize copyrights. Say into Functional (someone else's term) for things like code. A good name since what the code does is function as a human readable version of what software will do. The second category Non-Functional, for things like books, works of art, movies, etc. In other words things that are nice but in and of themselves do or produce nothing.

Step 2: Remove copyright protection from functional copyrights or set the term on them to some ridiculously short period of time, say two or three years. The media moguls wont object to this as it touches none of their core business. They have the money and the lobbying power to fend off any such attempts to remove their privileges.

Who would benefit from this? At first glance from the proposal I read, it would be open source itself because the code that went into a multitude of projects would land fully in the lap of public domain. Nice thought, but nothing could be further from the truth.

So lets ask again, who would benefit from this? The same people who already have the money and lobbying power to accomplish the deed, Microsoft, Sun, Apple, and any number of other closed source companies. GPL'd code would also land in public domain free and clear of any license encumberments. Everyone's code would be public domain, free to use, modify, and redistribute which has been the goal of the free software movement all along, so it must be a good thing right?


There is nothing that says that even though the copyright on proprietary code could come to term that any company HAS to release it. As a matter of fact, it would most likely get shoved under the rug as a “Trade Secret” like the recipe for a certain soft drink that comes in a red can with a white swoosh. There is no lifetime on Trade Secrets and even if it got leaked somehow and you got your hands on it, its still illegal to use.

So what do we have now? GPL'd code that is free and clear for any proprietary software company in the world to use. Nothing need be returned or documented, nor would there be any legal recourse to stop the use of or recover the rights to any of that source code.

Wow, that's going to hurt.

A quick recap:

We have a company with associates who actually have the money to pay for a serious run at making it happen. The other major players in the copyright field would not be affected one bit and therefor are not very likely to fight it. Heck, some of those other major players may even toss their hats into the ring for it considering the many connections proprietary software companies have. We would have then lost all our rights and any control to all code covered by any open source license, with nothing to show for it in return. We would still be able to use a lot of code and it would certainly end the debate about the GPL/BSD/MIT/etc licensing rights because they would all be capable of being mixed and matched, but that doesn't do anyone any real good in the end.

Does this seem like a nice little conspiracy theory to you yet? Think I need to be fitted with a tin foil beanie and/or a straight jacket? Well I'm just talking about it, the idea is most certainly not mine. You can find the source for my maunderings here, taken from links I found on the FSF website where you can ask the author yourself why he thinks gutting the GPL is such a good idea.