GPL not encouraging new technology

Nick Mailer nickm at
Fri Nov 29 15:27:43 UTC 2002

On Fri, 2002-11-29 at 15:00, Niall Douglas wrote:
> I'd be interested in what the list thinks regarding whether the GPL 
> is good or bad for new advances in technology eg; startups.
> I'll firstly offer my own position on this: the big problem I see 
> with the GPL is that it does not make any money for vendors 

Stop there for a moment. You see, you already frame the GPL's "big"
problem in economic terms. In other words, if some philosophy is not
"economically worthy", it is a "big problem". This is highly
contentious, for a start.

> *except* 
> when the product is already well-established and mature.

I'm not sure there's a particular problem with this? *Most* software
projects, propriatory or Free, do not make money until they are
well-established and mature.

Other software projects learn the value of the GPL through a trial of
fire: like Trolltech's QT and MySQL. That is not to say they have
abandoned propriatory licenses (through a dual-license) strategy, but
that they have realised the value in allowing those who would benefit
from a GPL'd product access thereto. This seems to be an inreasingly
sustainable model.

> If I were to 
> come along with some radical completely new way of looking at 
> computer software, my sole option under the GPL would be to do most 
> of the initial work myself, then get volunteers onboard (difficult - 
> there are not many programmers capable of thinking radically outside 
> the box), and then after many years and a lot of hard work you'd have 
> a product you possibly could provide support for and thus make your 
> living out of it. 

Why should you assume the right to make a living out of such a thing? In
a sense, the world offers you no living at all - you EARN one. If your
talents are sufficiently useful to someone, you will be paid to work
therewith. A case in point: we employ a Debian GNU/Linux package
maintainer who, at least 1/5 of the time, must continue to work
maintaining this package for the Debian project. It's worth it for my

As for your comments about programmers - I think that's patronising.
Take a look at the Kernel mailing list to dozens of programmers thinking
"out of the box" every day. This contradicts some of the comments you
make below.

> Until that point, you'd probably have to work to 
> support yourself and do the radical project in your own limited free 
> time.

No you won't. Many people work on Free Software projects in their spare
time or as part of other employed work. Take a look at the Exim
mail-server as an example. Lots of innovative technology has emerged
this way.

> Hence, I would feel that the GPL is bad for blue-sky technology 
> startups. The GPL is excellent for developing a better version of 
> already existing technology which cannot be stolen by others, but no 
> use for creating new technology.

Do you know anything about the history of the Free Software Foundation?
Do you know about the creation of GCC? Indeed, of the whole GNU project?
This seems to contradict what you say: certainly, it was designed to
look and feel like Unix, because this is what people were used to. But,
in virtually every case in point, the GNU tools out-performed and
out-innovated anything available for propriatory Unix. Indeed, even
today, propriatory Unixes like Solaris pretty much recommend the
downloading of the GNU toolset to get anything like a comfortably
useable operating experience!

> To prove this last probably contentious point, look at GNU/Linux. I 
> personally cannot see anywhere in the entire system any completely 
> unique technology.

There are very few examples of "completely unique [sic]" (something is
either unique or it isn't, by the way - it's one of those words ;-) IT
technologies around at the moment. Certainly, Microsoft haven't created
many. I would argue, strongly, however, that the Free Software movement
is innovating far more frequently and interestingly than propriatory
software. Take a look at some of the fascinating things that are going
to be included in the 2.6 kernel. Take a look at the Reiser4 file
system. Play around with some of the latest Mozilla developments.
Certainly, much of Free Software plays catchup with propriatory software
- because propriatory software has received the marketing budget and
mindshare that requires its efforts are duplicated. But do not let this
mask the fact that extraordinary innovation is going on as well. Indeed,
in a free, open and discursive environment, which is closely aligned to
the effective force of the Scientific Method, it would be surprising
were this not the case.

> It's merely an improved version of existing know-
> how. There's no real innovation in there AFAICS, not say like Plan 9 
> or EROS is a reconception from the ground up.

Reconceptions from the group up are rarely popular. Syntheses of what is
best about earlier technologies are. We are blessed and, indeed,
lumbered with a past. This burden is as heavy with propriatory software
(WIN32 et al) as it is with Free Software. Fortunately, Free Software
can just say "Ok, the next version is going to be binary incompatible"
and innovate, but without preventing the release and development of
previous versions. That way, nobody is locked out.

> Now I personally am not a free software advocate, never have been and 
> probably never will (I come from an Acorn background) 

So do I, but I don't see how this precludes one from a belief in Free
Software. Indeed, much of the benefit of the Acorn world was in the
home-brew programming mentality it spawned.

> but I do see 
> its utility against the shoddy practices of large multinationals. I 
> personally have always supported the notion that you buy, not licence 
> software and a binary alone isn't software - it comes with source. I 
> also support a fair deal more freedom of use of a bought product but 
> not so far as reselling it - so long as I get my cut of resales, I 
> would be happy with whatever its end use.
> So, hopefully you don't think me a troll. I am genuinely interested 
> in what all your thoughts are.

To be honest, if Acorn's dying movements had been to Free RiscOS, it'd
be in a far, far better state than it is now. And it would have any
number of wonderfully innovative features.

There are innovative, revolutionary projects all over the Free Software
universe. There are also "me too" projects. Your analysis does not bear

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