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GPL 3.0: A bonfire of the vanities?

Jonathan Zuck says GPL advocates are adopting a religious stance on software development, rather than a practical one.

I often find myself comparing the strife and pathos of the information technology industry to Greek and Shakespearean tragedies. Yet, the current debate on GPL 3.0 has me thinking back to my high school European history class.

In the late 15th century, the Renaissance was at its height and Florence was at its center. Under the patronage of the Medici family, "humanist" scholars were fueling an explosion in new works of art, science and philosophy. Though it was also a time of increased vice (drinking, gambling and lipstick), most of these humanists were dedicated Christians who were merely reconciling their faith with observed reality.

Enter Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican priest, who came to power in Florence in 1494. He viewed all of this "humanism" as vanity, turning people's heads away from the word of God and true religion. He took a very severe stand against the new scholarship, culminating in a series of bonfires in the town square, where many great works of art and science were lost. These fires have come to be known as the "Bonfire of the Vanities."

Like Savonarola, Richard Stallman takes a similarly religious stance on software development, rather than a practical one. For Stallman, the concept that software be "free, as in freedom" is the only concern in the creation of software. In fact, he has declared that "it is far more important that software be free than that it be better." This has led him to view the open-source software community, a related but practically minded version of the free software community, with skepticism and frequently with disdain.

With GPL 3, Stallman has drawn a bright line and offered the world a match.

However, it is the intensely practical efforts of the open-source community (people such as Linus Torvalds and corporations such as IBM, Red Hat and Hewlett-Packard) that have made any of this important enough to discuss. With products such as Linux and Apache leading the way, software loosely categorized as open source has seen a renaissance of its own.

To meet the needs of the heterogeneous market, this community has focused many of its efforts on building bridges between open/free software and proprietary products. Under GPL 2, companies have found many ways to create these types of hybrid systems. Today, Linux distributions from Red Hat, Suse and others include many pieces of proprietary and nonfree code. But this "mixing" has not been without its detractors. For leading Linux users like TiVo and Adaptec, the ability to protect key intellectual property is essential. But this protection is a direct assault on Stallman's version of freedom and the need to share software with the community. How do you balance the promotional value of high-profile Linux implementations against the philosophical compromise?

Stallman would argue that you don't. He views these practicalities, hybrids and commercial compromises as "vanities" that divert attention away from the real issue, which is and always will be his version of "freedom." GPL 3.0 is his call to dump all such transgressions in the town square and set them on fire. In interviews, he talks about preventing the "TiVo-ization" of software (the merging of free and proprietary software into a single system). GPL 3.0 has also become a platform to rail against digital rights management technology, viewed by Stallman as one more attempt to restrict his freedom. The commercial "humanists" such as Lawrence Lessig with his "Creative Commons" initiative have turned away from the Old Testament, and the GPL 3.0 license is a call to the faithful to reject these vanities.

According to Wikipedia, "Florence soon tired of Savonarola's hectoring," and so too are many turning their backs on Stallman. Stallman and the Free Software Foundation have every right to continue their ideological crusade against proprietary software, but will anyone follow?

Torvalds has been quoted as saying that the new license tries to do too much, when all he really wanted was a way for a lot of people to work on Linux. In response to criticism from Stallman's followers, Torvalds argued that "we are not crusaders, trying to force people to bow to our superior God. We are trying to show others that cooperation and openness works better." Even IBM, the perennial tightrope walker, will ultimately need to make a choice between the practical and the philosophical.

As George Santayana once said, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." In the end, the people, and even the church, turned their backs on Savonarola. He met with a particularly ignominious end, hanging over a bonfire of his own. While such an extreme outcome seems unlikely in modern times, I think it's very possible that with the GPL 3 license, Stallman risks bringing about his own marginalization.

With GPL 3, Stallman has drawn a bright line and offered the world a match. The irony of all forms of extremism is that you often get a result in conflict with your objectives. Savonarola's extremism led ultimately to a revolt and an increase in vice. Stallman has made a proposal that greatly restricts the use of GPL code. This new GPL may bring chains to the cause of freedom.