14 August 2006

Just What We Don't Need, Honest

One reason why work is going on to produce version 3 of the GNU GPL is that things have moved on quite a bit since version 2 came out in 1991. For example, the idea of providing software as a service across the Internet was in no one's mind at that time.

Today, of course, it's the backbone of companies like Yahoo and Google, and therein lies the problem. As I've written about elsewhere, the issue is that they use a lot of free software to provide those services, but give relatively little back to the communities that write it.

Now, in this they are (currently) quite within their rights, since they are not distributing any code based on free software, which is the trigger for making it open. But the larger issue is whether they should be distributing it anyway.

Someone who thinks they should is Fabrizio Capobianco. And he's come up with what he believes is a solution: the splendidly-named Honest Public License (HPL). As Capobianco explains:

The goal of HPL is to keep the community honest with itself. The use of the name "Honest" is ABSOLUTELY not intended to mean that GPL or any other licenses are dishonest. It is quite the opposite, actually. But some people are taking advantage of a GPL legal loophole and are defeating the spirit of the GPL. HPL is just GPL extended to cover the distribution of software as a service to the public. It does not take away any freedom (i.e. you can use it internally in your corporation), it just covers when someone distributes the code to the public (whether with a floppy or as a service). It is meant to keep people honest with their community.

I think this is a laudable attempt - laudable, but misguided. The last thing we need is another open source licence. In fact the plethora of licences is one of the banes of the free software world. Adding one more - however well intentioned - is only going to make things worse.

There are also practical objections. For example, releasing code under the HPL will discourage companies from using it; or they may use it and fail to open up their code, in which case it will be hard to discover that they are in breach.

I think a better solution is to get GNU GPL 3 right, and let companies that offer software as a service based on open source do the right thing. After all, as I suggested in my Linux Journal column, enormous amounts of goodwill can be generated by giving more than the licence requires, and such a development would be far better for the free software world than burdening it with yet another licence. (Via NewsForge.)


Anonymous said...

Hi Glyn,
I am glad to see you agree on the content of the HPL. The "yet another license" is the main comment I hear against the idea. However, I said very clearly that I want HPL to fold into GPL v3, once it is done. It is going to be temporary, but it is a step in the right direction. If we wait too long, people will take open source as free beer and we will kill open source. SaaS is going to be big, let's make it sure open source applies to it...

Glyn Moody said...

I appreciate that you do see this as a temporary solution; I suppose I see a danger that your temporary solution might be *too* attractive to some, in which case we'll get the HPL spreading, and maybe *less* pressure to sort out the GNU GPL 3, ironically.

I also feel it's a better overall result to get the SaaS companies to recognise their responsibilities on their own: you know, it's the old business of letting children develop a moral sense rather than trying to impose it.

Certainly, some won't, but I think the big ones - the obvious ones - will, because ultimately it is in their self-interest.

Anyway, congratulations for getting the debate going - it's important.