GPL-compatible vs Free was Re: For Approval: Microsoft Permissive License

Chris Travers chris at
Wed Aug 22 06:29:49 UTC 2007

Hi all;

I am sure everyone here is well aware of my general unhappiness with the 
FSF.  But I will still defend them when they are being IMO unfairly 

Donovan Hawkins wrote:
> On Tue, 21 Aug 2007, Matthew Flaschen wrote:
>> Donovan Hawkins wrote:
>>> It's unfortunate enough that "free" now means "free to do what the the
>>> GPL says you can do".
>> I don't think FSF ever claimed this.  They've always said BSD (and many
>> other licenses) is also free, but GPL is copyleft to ensure the code
>> stays free.
> I wasn't referring to whether the BSDL is considered "free", but 
> rather the fact that the GPL is.

I think you are conflating Free Software with Copyleft.  Sure the
I have always thought that the FSF defined Free (to varying degrees of 
success) based on the 4 Freedoms.

Whatever I think of their standards of characterizing licenses as Free, 
GPL compatibility isn't even a requirement.  They FSF *does* maintain a 
list of licenses they consider Free and GPL compatible, Free and 
GPL-incompatible, and non-Free.FSF seems to have trouble balancing these 
(and more as tome goes by), but I would think that the Larry Rosen's OSL 
for example could possibly be seen as copyleft but not Free because it 
places unacceptable conditions on use.

> GPL does not grant you the freedom to closed source a derivative work, 
> for example. Thus it is less free (in the conventional sense) than 
> BSDL, which grants every reasonable freedom one could grant for gratis 
> software. I'd have preferred to use "free" to designate software which 
> provides all freedoms and basically just disclaims against lawsuits 
> and prevents false attribution. Obviously the ship has sailed on that 
> one, but I wanted to point out that calling MS-PL "permissive" will be 
> yet another erosion of the lexicon. The ship has not yet sailed on 
> this one.

This tends to be  a huge emotional topic on any list I have ever been 
on.  I think the licenses are not that *different* in terms of promoting 
contributions as their proponents want to suggest.

My own thinking is that the GPL offers some additional protection or 
small, slow-moving projects in that they cannot be used by the 
competition to subsidize their own R&D.  I also think that the GPL v2 
(not 3) offered a reasonable balance of copyleft and freedom.  Most of 
my OSS contributions are under the GPL v2 so I have a fair bit of 
experience with that license and how it shapes communties.

I have also been around BSDL communities (PostgreSQL, Apache) long 
enough to see how they work.  One o the key misconceptions here is that 
in a large BSD project, contributions are freely given for reasons that 
remind one of hippy free love philosophies.  In fact there are sound 
economic reasons for companies to contribute to viable BSDL projects and 
economic punishments or not doing so, both of which center around the 
economics of code maintenance.

For example if vendor A and vendor B make proprietary works based off a 
common BSDL project C, both have every incentive to contribute as much 
back as possible or risk taking on substantial additional expenses.  
Suppose both vendors make some deep but necessary changes to the 
codebase to eliminate the same performance bottleneck.  Suppose vendor 
B's solution is better, while vendor A's is merely adequate to support 
immediate development requirements of other community members.  However 
B, wanting to keep this to themselves decides not to contribute their 
changes back while vendor A does.  This actually hurts vendor B 
economically and benefits vendor A who now gets to share the cost of 
maintenance with everyone else.  (Vendor B now faces some difficult 
choices in terms of code maintenance.)

However, the only way this works is if the community is open to the 
contributions.  In PostgreSQL, however, nobody really wants 
EnterpriseDB's Oracle compat work in their wonderful RDBMS (and for good 
reason IMHO-- Oracle is, well, Oracle).  But everything else gets 
contributed back.  With Green Plum, you see a similar issue.  This 
relegates closed versions of the software to niche uses only as the 
commons and the community grows.

I think that if I were to start a large community project from scratch, 
I would choose the BSDL today because it avoids a lot of the questions 
relating to "what if my dependency under GPL v2+ migrates to GPL v3+?" I 
think I understand the community requirements enough to make this work.

Best Wishes,
Chris Travers
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