I strongly believe in CopyLeft. I don't believe in the GPL or in the "Share-Alike" that Creative Commons uses.

The Scene

Basically, CopyLeft generally refers to Copyright licenses that provide some people some rights. If I copyright something, it's mine--a photo or this blog post--you can't use it unless you ask me and I let you. CopyLeft means that I have a copyright but I also provide a license for ways that you can use it.

The GPL (which is used by Linux and what is often linked with "free" or open-source software), is a CopyLeft license which is used for software and usually means that you don't pay any money to use the GPL-ed software.

Creative Commons, also has several CopyLeft licenses that you can use to license thing. I especially like it that you can start at their website and in less than a minute you can have a "deed" for whatever you want to license (they give you code to put on a blog or webpage and it links to a deed which is basically the simplified legalese that is the "real" legal license). One of the options that CC provides is "Share-Alike."

Share Alike is similar to part of what is build in to the GPL, so I'm just going to talk about them as though they are the same (which they aren't). Looking at an SA (Share-Alike) deed on CC:

Share Alike. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same, similar or a compatible license.

That sounds nice in theory. Let's say you're a musician and you write an instrumental piece. You use a CC-SA license on it and therefore people can use it - so long as, if they add to it (let's say they grab it and use it as background music for a video that they then post on You-Tube) they also have use a Share-Alike license. AND...

My Beef

And any other settings you chose. Let's say you choose a Non-Commercial license (which I think are good in some instances) - so you've got a NC-SA CC License on your music. A person comes along and wants to use your music in something else (the video), they can't then charge money for that video. That may sound OK, but then you're restricting their usage and is that really "free" anymore? I don't think it is. And there is a lot of talk about "free" software under the GPL meme.

Where this happens for me is in software projects. There is a lot of good open-source code and I'm at a point where I'd rather take existing open-source software and add something to it. But, if that software is GPL or CC-SA then I'm limited in where/how I can use it.

The Reason (as I understand it)

The advocates of this type of license might say that it's only free if it stays free forever (no one comes along and tries to sell it and lock it down) - and that's the point of this kind of license. CC, to their credit, are less "preachy" about Share-Alike and instead it's just 1 option and is only in 2 of their 7 licenses.

This works logically: if you accept the starting premise that all software should be free, then any license should ensure that.

I don't buy that starting premise: in this world, you should be able to charge for software (it makes it easier to pay the mortgage). If you accept that, then the concept of adding something of value on to something else of value, should give you the right to re-license as you see fit. That new stuff is yours and if someone wants the previous version (not yours) that is more openly licensed, they can do that too.

In this sense, I think the "free" software available via the GPL isn't free if you want to expand on it: it comes at a price.

The Real Problem: The Market

And that price won't work for the market (I'm talking about the general market here). If a company is looking to build software, they are building it for a reason: to fill a need in the market. Once they build that software, more than likely, they are going to charge for it.

If they build it all themselves, they can charge for it: they can license it however they want.

And that sounds fine except for one detail: software routinely performs the same tasks. That is, any software that you look to build has parts that other programs do too. If you own multiple computer programs (as in, you built them), you can re-use the same computer code in both programs.

If you can borrow from the general public (in the form of free licenses) then you can maybe save that time (& cost - which could be passed to users). Now, you wouldn't always do this - sometimes it makes sense to start from scratch. But, with GPL software, it is less attractive to do this.

It's sort of like if in the medical community - where they publish new medical findings publicly - if they said, on some findings, "You can use this information from this study - only if you agree not to charge for treatment." That would never work - honest doctors would be forced to do the research themselves prior to using the new method or drug (or not charge for treatment - which doesn't work so well for doctors who want to continue being doctors or buy syringes and have a building in which to provide treatment). This would greatly hamper the general human forward progress on new medicine.

But that's what GPL (and CC-SA in some scenarios) does: it says that you can use it for free only so long as you pass it along to others for free (strictly speaking: you can charge for it, but you have to provide the source as well - which means someone else can pick it up and redistribute it [for free]). It sounds nice in theory: share in the same way you got it, but it doesn't make for good sharing when you start introducing entities (people & companies) that need to make money to survive. Or, Bill Gates' summary of this aspect of the GPL: "Open source creates a license so that nobody can ever improve the software." I think that's an overstatement but in these terms, you can't improve the software: since you can't make money doing it - so you leave it alone.




Tuesday, April 01, 2008, 12:00 AM

tagged: copyleft, copyrightlaw, creativecommons, freesoftware, licenses, opensource