My personal journey from MIT to GPL

Published 2019-06-13 on Drew DeVault's blog

As I got started writing open source software, I generally preferred the MIT license. I actually made fun of the “copyleft” GPL licenses, on the grounds that they are less free. I still hold this opinion today: the GPL license is less free than the MIT license - but today, I believe this in a good way.

If you haven’t yet, I suggest reading the MIT license - it’s very short. It satisfies the four essential freedoms guaranteed of free software:

  1. The right to use the software for any purpose.
  2. The right to study the source code and change it as you please.
  3. The right to redistribute the software to others.
  4. The right to distribute your modifications to the software.

The MIT license basically allows you to do whatever you want with the software. It’s one of the most hands-off options: “here’s some code, you can do anything you want with it.” I favored this because I wanted to give users as much freedom to use my software as possible. The GPL, in addition to being a much more complex tome to understand, is more restrictive. The GPL forces you to use the GPL for derivative works as well. Clearly this affords you less freedom to use the software. Obligations are the opposite of freedoms.

When I first got into open source, I was still a Windows user. As I gradually waded deeper and deeper into the free software pond, I began to use Linux more often1. Even once I started using Linux as my daily driver, however, it took a while still for the importance of free software to set in. But this realization is inevitable, for a programmer immersed in Linux. It radically changes your perspective when all of the software you use guarantees these four freedoms. If I’m curious about how something works, I can usually be reading the code within a few seconds. I can find the author’s name and email in the git blame and shoot them some questions. And when I find a bug, I can fix it and send them a patch.

The weight of these possibilities did not occur to me immediately, instead slowly becoming evident over time. Today, this cycle is almost muscle memory. Pulling down source, grepping for files related to an itch I need to scratch, compiling and installing the modified version, and sending my work upstream - it’s become second nature to me. These days, on the rare occasion that I run into some proprietary software, this all grinds to a halt. It’s like miscounting the number of steps on your staircase in the dark. These moments drive the truth home: Free software is good. It’s starkly better than the alternative. And copyleft defends it. Now that I’ve had a taste, you bet your ass I’m not going to give it up.

As the number of hours I’ve spent on FOSS projects grew from tens of hours, to hundreds, to thousands and tens of thousands, I’ve learned that the effort I sink into my work far outstrips the effort required to reuse my work. The collective effort of the free software community amounts to tens of millions of hours of work, which you can download at touch of a button, for free. If the people with their fingers on that button held these same ideals, we wouldn’t need the GPL. The reality, however, is that we live in a capitalist world. Our socialist free software utopia is ripe for exploitation by capitalists, and they’ll be rewarded for doing so. Capitalism is about enriching yourself - not enriching your users and certainly not enriching society.

Your parents probably taught you about the Golden Rule when you were young: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The GPL is the legal embodiment of this Golden Rule: in exchange for benefiting from my hard work, you just have to extend me the same courtesy. Its the unfortunate acknowledgement that we’ve created a society that incentivises people to forget the Golden Rule. I give people free software because I want them to reciprocate with the same. That’s really all the GPL does. Its restrictions just protect the four freedoms in derivative works. Anyone who can’t agree to this is looking to exploit your work for their gain - and definitely not yours.

I don’t plan on relicensing my historical projects, but my new projects have used the GPL family of licenses for a while now. I think you should seriously consider it as well.

  1. Fun fact: the first time I used Linux was as a teenager, in order to get around the internet filtering software my parents had installed on our Windows PC at home. 

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