GPL in the cloud: The market doesn’t care

Article Source The Open Road
April 17, 2009, 12:55 pm

If the market’s response to the Affero GPL is any indication, I was 100 percent wrong to suggest that open source would suffer without closing the so-called “ASP loophole.”

That, at least, is the feeling I’m getting reading Stephen O’Grady’s excellent summary of open-source licensing, and particularly the GPL, and how it works (or doesn’t) in SaaS, cloud, and other instantiations of network-based computing. Despite the fact that the Open Source Initiative approved the Affero GPL–which explicitly shuts the door on free-riding on open source in network-based computing without contributing back–few have adopted it.

This could be because we need to raise awareness of the AGPL. Or perhaps it means no one really cares.

Yes, Fabrizio Capobianco, a personal friend and CEO of Funambol, an open-source mobile company, is right to suggest that Google has profited handsomely from open source while giving commensurately little back, but I’m starting to wonder, along with O’Grady, if it matters. General Electric uses Alfresco’s software throughout the company while paying us nothing…and yet we’re having a banner year.

Perhaps this is just the cost of doing business in open source? I definitely believe that open-source companies derive far more value from free distribution than we lose.

I also believe that Google contributes open-source code where and how necessary for it to compete effectively. Google has become very active in a wide range of open-source projects. Perhaps it’s less important to worry about its paltry contributions back to Linux, and instead take a more holistic view?

And perhaps the lack of uptake on the AGPL is a recognition that the value in open source is less about contribution and more about distribution and adoption. The reality is that very few open-source projects can command any outside contributions of note, but many are able to become widely used by lowering the barriers to adoption through free downloads and light restrictions on use.

In sum, perhaps Richard Stallman was wrong. Perhaps open source’s cardinal virtue is not freedom to modify source code, but to get it in the first place.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.