GPL not encouraging new technology

Alex Hudson home at
Fri Nov 29 20:46:59 UTC 2002

(I'm only interested in the economic arguments here, so I'm selectively
quoting and replying - shoot me :o)

On Fri, 2002-11-29 at 19:54, Niall Douglas wrote:
> > I also think that the availability of free software among pupils and
> > students can spur some innovative new free software.  Studying real
> > programs is a very important aspect of learning to program, and the
> > GNU software base has some very good examples (I often look into the
> > GNU C library, for example).
> There's no reason why commercial software can't achieve the same 
> thing, it's just we've all grown used to not receiving the source 
> with our software.

I disagree with this; being able to look at source doesn't teach you
much at all (I think Marcus hasn't stated the argument well, or perhaps
he doesn't agree with me :). You only learn by doing, and participating
in a Free Software project (for example) is far more 'doing' than being
able to see source for X "commercial" (proprietary) program. Proprietary
software that comes with source very rarely allows you to 'do', all you
can do is review, play a little, perhaps bug-fix. 

> No, but money arrives to GPL projects much later (and less of it)  
> than to commercial so therefore proving my point.

I don't think that's necessarily the case. Proprietary software tends to
come to market fully-formed (i.e., developed already); Free Software
isn't usually written and then marketed. If you believe in supply/demand
theory, at a simplistic level proprietary licences are good at
restricting software, whereas the restriction for Free Software (which
also exists with proprietary softwarem, but usually isn't a limiting
factor) is availability of skills and labour. The programmer comes to
market with his skills, rather than his software, so the development of
the software would be pre-funded rather than post-funded.

I would imagine that is the more common scenario - if not now, in the
future - than mature software being commercialized in the marketplace.
"Mature" Free Software tends to address large-user-base COTS (commerial
off the shelf) needs, rather than the bespoke software market (which is
probably bigger), which is probably a contributory factor to the
scenario where commercialized Free Software is also (at least partially)

> MySQL had a mature product when they looked to go commercial. Qt was 
> less so at the time, but it was still relatively mature.
> Both are better implementations of existing technology, there isn't 
> much radically different in them.

I think your argument that Free Software is inherently derivative is a)
correct, and b) wrong. Yes, the tendency to derive is more likely in
Free Software, but only because it is the natural tendency of software
and is far easier with Free than proprietary. But, where is there real
innovation? I would argue nowhere, not proprietary nor Free. It of
course depends on your definition of innovation, but frankly, there's
nothing new under the sun.

> Unfortunately we live in a world where work in itself is not 
> rewarded. It must be of value, and because of this artists and 
> engineers alike must bend their creativity towards making profit.
> Hence yes, I do assume the right to make money out of writing 
> software, just as much as painting a wall or anything else others 
> consider of value.

You can assume the right all you like; your business will not succeed
unless someone is willing to pay you :) 

In a way, you are probably correct about proprietary licences. They are
very good at mitigating the risk of developing software: I guess in the
way it's a lot like the futures market, where you bet on the future
value of something in terms of realizable revenue. However, this is only
applicable in the sense of an entrepreneur risking investment in
software development for future reward: i.e., the COTS scenario where
the software is brought to market. From the bespoke point of view, it
hasn't really mitigated the risk (the customer isn't really buying what
you are developing), and certainly doesn't work from the
skills-to-market point of view. 

The value of COTS software long-term is also pretty poor - this is the
usual reason people think Free Software licences are poor at
commericializing software. Once a piece of software has been developed,
in order for a developer to continue work on it there must be reason for
it's further development. The proprietary market has worked out it's own
answers to this question (data lock-in, subscription software, etc.),
but it doesn't get away from the fact that continued development on a
piece of software in order to make a new value proposition is hard, and
made harder the longer the software is developed. Free Software licences
are poor at locking the user in, are poor at selling 'bells and
whistles', etc. - if you haven't created something of new value, it's
unlikely you could re-commercialize it. Hence, people think it's hard to
commercialize Free Software. What they usually mean is, it's not easy to
commericialize COTS Free Software on an over-extended product life-span.

> > <snip GNU history>
> Again you're repeating exactly what I just said! And if you do 
> examine the history of GNU, their attempts at their own kernel were 
> trounced by Linux which was a very retrograde kernel when it was 
> first created.

To be fair, he wasn't. While GNU was originally deriviative - probably
more because the development systems it was being created on were UNIX,
and it was being created piece-meal - it's not true any more. Yes, they
were not ground-up innovative, but that doesn't preclude them being
blue-sky: in fact, the amount of innovation is actually quite high,
which is why they are trouncing their proprietary counterparts. Not
because of development cost reasons (which are arguable anyway), but
because they're better in many very real ways.

> Don't get me wrong. Given twenty years of spare time by enough 
> people, you'll eventually get there. But vastly more people will 
> volunteer their time on established paradigms that radical step 
> changes, hence the GPL is not good for blue-sky projects.

If GNU projects were not progressive, they would not over-take their
proprietary forebears. Remember, the GNU project was *designed* as an OS
replacement. Not an alternative, a replacement. So, it had to really
implement all the functions in a substantially similar fashion. What
were the proprietary systems doing while GNU was being developed?
Nothing that would keep them ahead, anyway - the only proprietary COTS
operating systems with advantage over GNU/Linux are Windows and Solaris
(arguably). Areas in which these systems are technically better are few
and far between, arguable, and not worth debating here. I suspect
Solaris won't be in the race much longer either. 

> > 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.
> I think there are more that many would believe. Acorn RISC-OS had 
> quite a number, as did NextSTEP.

If you believe that RiscOS is innovative, but the Hurd is not, then you
either don't know the Hurd sufficiently well, or have a clear Acorn bias
in your argument that you can't see past :)



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