The GPL: A Technology Of Trust
Society is built on exchange. One particular form of exchange that we're genetically wired for is reciprocal altruism: speculative generosity with expectation of future payoff.
Open Source is a textbook example of reciprocal altruism. But this leaves the Open Source community vulnerable to parasitism. (This term comes from game theory; I'm not trying to insult anyone.) In a small group, trust comes from repeated interactions, and personal experience is adequate to recognize parasites and avoid them. But in a large group, interactions between any two people are often indirect and/or infrequent. Something more than experience is needed to engender trust between people who don't know each other, and who may never even meet.
Therefore, any large group must evolve a technology of trust. If it doesn't do so, it will fall victim to rampant parasitism, which will cause inefficiency, which will eventually bring stagnation and failure to compete -- that is, death.
The GPL is a technology of trust. Contributors to GPL'd projects trust that the GPL -- which depends on law, itself a technology of trust -- will prevent parasitism. They trust that if they contribute to a project, they will have access to the valuable goods built on their own work. So, while GPL'd projects can have forks, they can't have proprietary forks. And that makes all the difference.
This analysis may seem simple or even obvious. But its implications are far-reaching.
1. The GPL will eventually dominate Open Source (if it doesn't already). Both analysis and observation point to the GPL, or something like it, as the destiny of Open Source. More than any other current license, the GPL discourages parasitism; thus it enhances efficiency; thus it helps a culture outcompete rivals whose technologies of trust are less advanced. By making its host culture successful, the GPL -- or some future license built on it -- will finally win out.
2. We must preserve the GPL, for the sake of the community. When Microsoft attacks the GPL, it would be tempting for those of us who don't identify with ``Free Software'' to use as our primary reply that ``Open Source is more than the GPL.'' That would be a mistake. The GPL's peculiar strengths are crucial in the Open Source community's competition with other cultures who would love to see Open Source, let alone Free Software, gone and forgotten.
3. The GPL is good for business. Companies that use the GPL are neither foolish nor stupid. They simply want to trust that other companies won't be able to take unfair advantage of them, and the GPL gives them that immediate security while simultaneously allowing open cooperation. And in the general case, the GPL is a friend of business because it makes new and better efficiencies possible, and economies thrive on new and better efficiencies.
(On the other hand, we can agree with Microsoft that the GPL is bad for their current business. We can then proceed to use Microsoft's favorite word as we reply: Innovation won't stop just because you're not ready for it. The printing press was a good thing, after all, even though it forced professional scribes to change their business model. Adapt or die.)
In summary: We in the Open Source community need to stand with the FSF and defend the GPL against all comers -- not merely as a tactical move, but because the GPL is a valuable technology of trust. To outcompete other cultures, we must adopt technologies that work. And the GPL works.