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GPL declines as open source moves to the Web

The 5 percent drop in General Public License adoption likely reflects a shift in perception as to the value of open-source licensing.

The GNU General Public License (GPL) used to dominate open-source licensing, but its hold appears to be slipping according to new research from Black Duck Software. While GPLv3 has seen a 400-percent increase in adoption, and though the GPL and its variants still claim over 65 percent of all open-source projects, Black Duck reports a 5 percent decline in GPL adoption.

Top 10 Open-source Licenses Black Duck Software

This drop makes sense, given the GPL's decreasing relevance to the modern world of network-delivered software and the increasing value of data over software.

ZDNet's Dana Blankenhorn points out that there are no clear replacements arising for the GPL, and he's right. But I'm not sure that's the point.

Peter Vescuso, executive vice president of marketing and business development at Black Duck Software, argues that we're starting to see greater diversity in licensing approaches, as "many developers are selecting licenses that are less restrictive, a move that underscores the broader adoption and value of open source in today's multisource development environments."

Perhaps. Or perhaps developers simply don't care that much about open-source licensing qua licensing very much any more. The real value in open-source software is no longer the software, but rather the resultant services that are delivered over the Web, a theme that Tim O'Reilly has been hitting consistently over the past six years.

The GPL was highly relevant in the Software 1.0 world because it was a great way to protect software assets. In effect, the GPL became the preferred way to replicate the copyright regime, except under the banner of free software.

Today, the GPL (and open-source licensing, generally) is irrelevant.

It's irrelevant because the GPL protects nothing in a world where software is delivered over the Web, because the GPL's "distribution clause" isn't triggered. The GPL becomes BSD/Apache, in short.

Because of this, Web developers long ago stopped worrying about open-source license requirements and instead are focused on data-driven lock-in. Open-source software becomes a way to build free services that encourage adoption, which adoption yields valuable data. That data is the crown jewels in a networked world, as O'Reilly suggests.

Because Web developers don't necessarily need to protect their software, we're seeing more adopt licenses like BSD, Apache, and other permissive licenses in order to foster community, rather than protection, around their software. Those who persist in seeing the world through the Software 1.0 lens continue to try to protect the software, which is why we're seeing a four-fold increase in AGPLv3 adoption. (AGPLv3 extends the definition of "distribution" to include network-based delivery of software.)

The GPL isn't dead, and perhaps it's not even dying. But that isn't the point. The point is that the real question is Web-based delivery of software, and current licensing has almost nothing to say on that topic.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.