Matthew Garrett ([personal profile] mjg59) wrote2012-02-09 05:08 pm
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Is GPL usage really declining?

Matthew Aslett wrote about how the proportion of projects released under GPL-like licenses appears to be declining, at least as far as various sets of figures go. But what does that actually mean? In absolute terms, GPL use has increased - any change isn't down to GPL projects transitioning over to liberal licenses. But an increasing number of new projects are being released under liberal licenses. Why is that?

The figures from Black Duck aren't a great help here, because they tell us very little about the software they're looking at. FLOSSmole is rather more interesting. I pulled the license figures from a few sites and found the following proportion of GPLed projects:

RubyForge: ~30%
Google Code: ~50%
Launchpad: ~70%

I've left the numbers rough because there's various uncertainties - should proprietary licenses be included in the numbers, is CC Sharealike enough like the GPL to count it there, that kind of thing. But what's clear is that these three sites have massively different levels of GPL use, and it's not hard to imagine why. They all attract different types of developer. The RubyForge figures are obviously going to be heavily influenced by Ruby developers, and that (handwavily) implies more of a bias towards web developers than the general developer population. Launchpad, on the other hand, is going to have a closer association with people with an Ubuntu background - it's probably more representative of Linux developers. Google Code? The 50% figure is the closest to the 56.8% figure that Black Duck give, so it's probably representative of the more general development community.

The impression gained from this is that the probability of you using one of the GPL licenses is influenced by the community that you're part of. And it's not a huge leap to believe that an increasing number of developers are targeting the web, and the web development community has never been especially attached to the GPL. It's not hard to see why - the benefits of the GPL vanish pretty much entirely when you're never actually obliged to distribute the code, and while Affero attempts to compensate from that it also constrains your UI and deployment model. No matter how strong a believer in Copyleft you are, the web makes it difficult for users to take any advantage of the freedoms you'd want to offer. It's as easy not to bother.
So it's pretty unsurprising that an increase in web development would be associated with a decrease in the proportion of projects licensed under the GPL.

This obviously isn't a rigorous analysis. I have very little hard evidence to back up my assumptions. But nor does anyone who claims that the change is because the FSF alienated the community during GPLv3 development. I'd be fascinated to see someone spend some time comparing project type with license use and trying to come up with a more convincing argument.

(Raw data from FLOSSmole: Howison, J., Conklin, M., & Crowston, K. (2006). FLOSSmole: A collaborative repository for FLOSS research data and analyses. International Journal of Information Technology and Web Engineering, 1(3), 17–26.)

(Anonymous) 2012-02-10 03:27 am (UTC)(link)
Great post!

Its definitly the case that open source web development tends to happen under liberal licenses. Personally I think that is an ok thing.

Beyond the obvious and sad fact, that the GPL is useless, is a nice fact: nearly everyone does open source.

Most big websites have atleast some open source stuff. Yahoo, Twitter, Google, and the Economist come to mind. And the cool kid web dev culture greatly encurages open source side projects.

In fact at least two of the largest sites are open source: wikipedia and runs wordpress in multisite mode)

Compare all this to the average desktop where nearly nothing is open source and the web looks positivly Stallman like.

(Anonymous) 2012-02-10 10:17 am (UTC)(link)
"Beyond the obvious and sad fact, that the GPL is useless"

Nice attempt to slip in a bit of tail-wagging-the-dog there, but I think that is far from the truth, no matter how much you wish it were so. The GPL has been the catalyst for the production of the majority of the "open source" ecosystem over the last decade or two.

(Anonymous) 2012-02-11 07:51 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you that is exactly what I meant.