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Cover image for People should stop calling GPL/LGPL as "freedom licenses" without knowing what freedom really means in this context

People should stop calling GPL/LGPL as "freedom licenses" without knowing what freedom really means in this context

prahladyeri profile image Prahlad Yeri ・2 min read

There is a trend in open source (or free software) world of referring to GPL/LGPL as freedom friendly or simply freedom licenses as though using them is going to give you some profound and mystical liberation or something.

As we all know, the English word free is rather confusing sometimes because it could mean one of two things:

  1. Free of cost (as in free beer or gotten something without cost).
  2. Freedom from something (as in India got freedom in 1947 from the colonial rule).

When it comes to GPL, folks are referring to the second kind of freedom (this freedom is also called libre, a french borrowed terminology, hence LibreOffice, Libre Linux, etc.).

Stallmanists (as the GPL proponents are usually called) think that GPL is somehow more free (libre) than the permissive licenses like MIT, Apache, BSD, etc. which they are too eager to dismiss.

However, that's a great misunderstanding because that may not be true at all depending on your definition of freedom or liberty. Liberty is the concept which directly tackles this second libre kind of freedom. Traditionally, Liberty proponents are of two kinds:

  1. Individual Liberty: Those who hold that each individual or person should have as much liberty as possible.
  2. Collective Liberty: The collective of individuals (or commons) should have as much liberty as possible as a group.

So you see, there are two kinds of liberties and there is a subtle difference between them. Stallman's stand on freedom (GPL) makes sense only if you consider the second variety of liberty (commons) as the measuring barometer but fails miserably when you consider the first kind of liberty (individual liberty).

Now, as much as I like the concept of commons or a community, I'm not too fond of licenses like GPL which carry that too far and place restrictions on how an individual chooses to use the GPL code. GPL states that any modifications or derived work from GPL code should be distributed under the terms of GPL only (I cannot even distribute them as MIT/BSD/Apache or any other permissive license).

Now this is great for the GPL common cause but here lies the biggest weakness of GPL too: The first kind of freedom (individual liberty) is actually sacrificed, an individual is no more free to define the terms of her own developed code. In contrast, the permissive licenses like MIT/Apache/BSD are lot more free in comparison when you consider the individual liberty aspect too.

Thus, next time when you talk about GPL licenses and the freedom it provides, be sure to understand what kind of freedoms are we talking about in the first place!

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Prahlad Yeri

@prahladyeri

Most programmers like coffee but I'm fond of tea.

Discussion

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Well, well, it is true of course that there are two types of liberty. But which one should have priority in the cases when these two contradicts somehow?

We need to have some tie-breaker for these special cases.

For me, the collective liberty should always has higher priority. Because of two reasons:

  1. The individual is mortal, but the society is virtually immortal. So, the given liberty will last much longer.

  2. When the collective liberty is decreased at the expense of individual liberty, much more individuals are affected, than in the reverse case.

    So, when the collective liberty has priority, the total liberty increases as a result of the tie-break. When the individual liberty has priority, the total liberty decreases.

That is why I am adherent to the GPL, EUPL and the other copy-left licenses. (and there was a time, when I liked the permissive licenses more).

As simple as that.

 

Glad to hear a case for the other end of this.

I've been pondering the question for some time now.

 

At some point I agree, I think we need better licenses too,
I would like to see a Rolling Release license, not Versioned ones.

I think Peer Production License worth a look into.