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GPL Thoughts May 11, 2016

Posted by PythonGuy in Licensing, Uncategorized.
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It’s 2016, and the GPL is once again on my mind. Broadly speaking, there are three types of licenses out there.

  • Free Software, which is software licensed such that it will always remain freely available and open to modification. As a side-effect, it will “infect” other software that uses it such that it becomes free as well.
  • Open-source Software, which is software licensed such that it can be freely shared or modified, but it doesn’t “infect” other software.
  • Proprietary Software, which is software licensed such that it cannot be freely shared or modified.

There is a fourth type, but it barely deserves mentioning. “Public domain” software, which is software that is practically dead.

When Stallman came up with the GPL, his interest was to fundamentally change the way we write, use, modify and share software. In order to accomplish this, he set into motion the following plan:

  1. Write some good software and freely share it, but make sure it cannot be part of any proprietary software.
  2. Write more good software that competes against and replaces proprietary software.
  3. Eventually, it won’t make sense to write proprietary software anymore, because all the good software is free and nobody expects to pay for software.

According to Stallman’s plan, we’re very deep into 2 and well on the way to 3.

The question that inevitably arises, “How do developers get paid?” is forefront on my mind. After all, I write code so that I can get paid. (I would probably write code otherwise, but not nearly so much.)

So how can I get paid for my work?

Truth be told, I make more money from supporting software than anything else. It’s very rare that I get to write entirely new software, even when I’m working on a software project. Most of the time, I am fixing already existing code, or adapting it to some purpose, or more likely, testing it to see if it actually does what we think it does, or just to figure out why it doesn’t do what I want it to do.

The tools that I use are almost all GPL. Or rather, if all of my tools were GPL it wouldn’t hurt me in the slightest. In fact, it would make my life a lot better.

But then how do I make money?

Simply put, people still want software to be written, and it isn’t unheard of to have people pay me to work on open source projects. It isn’t unthinkable that I could be hired to work on free software as well, if there was a great need for that. There are not a few developers who are already being paid by private companies to do that.

The big question then isn’t, “How do individual developers get paid”, but “How do we convince people to pay for software development work?” The answer is when there is a need, people will pay. Sometimes very large sums of money.

The proprietary model doesn’t make any sense anymore. Proprietary software is an agreement that looks like this. “Give me your money, I’ll take it and I’ll give you software that you can’t look at or modify. If you like the software, keep giving me money. If you want to make the software better, beg me to do it for you.” That just doesn’t fly.

I think we’ll see companies that arise that hand out their software for free. In exchange, they will get paid to modify the software or to teach people how to use it. They may also get paid to adapt the software for a particular environment. Thus, the value in a software company will not be the software, but the developers and the ability of the company to apply the software to solve problems.

This, to me, is tremendously encouraging. If this vision comes to pass, I won’t be hired to write software and fired when I finish. I’ll be hired to staff companies so they can say, “Whatever you need done, we can do it, provided you can afford our developers.”

The GPL really is the way forward, and free software is the only good solution out there.

 

 

 

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