Public Money - Public Code: Helping with the campaign

Paul Boddie paul at
Mon Aug 28 12:09:23 UTC 2017

On Monday 28. August 2017 12.26.34 Fabian Keil wrote:
> Jonas Oberg <jonas at> wrote:
> > > I'm referring to 'commercial utilization' as used in the context of
> > > what Moritz quoted.
> > 
> > Thank you. I think the context is a bit muddled as it somehow seems to
> > suggest the GPL is unsuitable for commercial utilization. There are
> > certainly differences in what stance countries take on the issue, but
> > we should make clear all countries, big and small, benefit from copyleft
> > licenses.
> ... and other free software licenses.

Well, yes, but let us try and avoid drawing this out over lots of messages 
because the original context keeps getting lost. The assertion in the text 
quoted from the book "The Comingled Code" was...

"For instance, a small country might want to take advantage of further 
improvements by others to its software and would be more inclined to fund open 
source projects with licenses that limit commercial utilization, such as the 
General Public License."

The objection that started this discussion was about the assertion that the 
GPL limits "commercial utilization" (as meant by the authors). Now, the GPL 
does prevent the "easy money" approach of welding the lid shut and sticking a 
price tag on the box, and this approach then becomes unavailable to certain 
kinds of commercial entities. This is indeed a "limit" on a specific form of 
"commercial utilization".

But this "limit" does not mean that other activities are curtailed or that 
other ways of making money aren't even created by the need to provide the 
sources under the GPL, particularly when the obligation involves recipients 
who can be (and may only be) paying customers. And although what the authors 
wrote can be consistent with what I have just written, much depends on one's 
own perceptions.

For many people, the production of proprietary software is somehow equated to 
"commercial utilization" because such people cannot understand how anyone 
would otherwise make money from software. So, they claim that the GPL is "non-
commercial" or "anti-commercial", when what it actually does is to prevent one 
specific business model.

Now, maybe the authors do not support such false equivalences, but even so, 
random members of the public who have not read the book may well jump to 
erroneous conclusions if they are presented with things like the quoted 
statement in isolation. That is presumably why the objection was raised.

The following sentence from the quoted text is informative about the mindset 
behind notions of commercialisation:

"In a large country with a dynamic software industry, government officials may 
wish to make it easier for commercial firms to benefit from publicly funded
research and development."

What we now see in the public sector, or in institutions performing a public 
service (such as academic institutions that may be private in some cases), is 
the idea that public money should encourage or initiate "innovation". This 
often seems to take the form of letting companies profit from work done for 
the public good, and it is often excused or explained as a way of "stimulating 
the economy".

One argument that is made is that it provides a way of assisting local 
companies against foreign competition, and that the money made from such works 
will provide tax revenues instead of going abroad. But what ends up happening 
is that the public ends up paying over and over again for such works, and such 
works end up being exploitative towards the average person.

So, as Adonay mentioned, the average person ends up having to use proprietary 
tax software that may only work on certain proprietary platforms, and they may 
even have to pay substantial sums to be able to use all of this. And so, the 
"benefits" seem to get channeled to certain people and not to others, all in 
the name of "business".

Meanwhile, there are arguments that publicly-funded works might be used to 
reduce costs for the average person, to eliminate profiteering around 
commercial distractions, and to direct entrepreneurs towards activities that 
provide greater benefits to society.


P.S. Note that permissive licences do let people take publicly-funded code, 
deny people the source code, and charge money for the result. Such licences 
would guarantee "public code" only in its initial form.

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