GPL and free(dom) software distribution

As some of you may know, I spoke at the recent Edge of the Web conference in Perth, on the topic of the WordPress economy for Designers.  The discussion that followed was particularly interesting – it became clear that there were a lot of people in the room (designers, developers, business people) that were interested in discussing the GPL and my experience of how working with the GPL affects commercialisation.

For those who came in late, the GPL refers to the GNU General Public License, and is an open-source license. It is the license which WordPress is distributed under, and all plugins hosted in the repository must also be licensed under the GPL.

An explanation as written in the WordPress Codex:

Open source doesn’t just mean that you can view the source code — it has political and philosophical implications as well. Open source, or “Free Software”, means you are free to modify and redistribute the source code under certain conditions. Free doesn’t refer to the price, it refers to freedom. The difference between the two meanings of free is often characterized as “Free as in speech vs. free as in beer.” The GPL is free as in speech.

Defining the GPL

The basis of the GPL is that when a developer distributes copies of software licensed under the GPL, that developer must pass on to the recipients the same freedoms that they themselves benefited from.  The developer is also bound to show the recipient the GPL so that they know their rights and responsibilities for software use, modification and/or further redistribution.

In simple terms, if you use a GPL licensed software to develop a product, then likewise you must make your new/modified product available to others under the GPL.

The misconception that free = $0

This ‘rights free’ essence of the GPL often gives rise to a misconception that a developer cannot charge for software he or she chooses to license (or must license) under the GPL.  What many do not realise is that when the GPL speaks of ‘free’ software, it refers to freedom, not price.  Indeed, it is something that distinguishes the GPL from other shareware software licenses, which aim to prevent commercial redistribution.

The rationale of this choice made by the GPL is that truly free software should be free from all restrictions including one which aims to restrict commercial intent. For example, the GPL itself permits charging any price for conveying a verbatim copy of GPL licensed software.  It also prompts further commercial pathways by permitting the charge of a fee for the provision of warranty protection.

OK, but why use the GPL then?

Despite the clarity of the GPL itself and the rights free philosophy, the misconception highlighted above is not entirely unjustified.  A developer new to the GPL scene might initially ask:

“why would I spend loads of time and resources in developing, modifying, re-developing software, only for it to be available to anyone to redistribute as they please and benefit from my hard work?!”

The answer is simple. You consider that your product is solid.  Not only is your product gold, but your delivery, marketing and presentation of that product is too. You will stand by it and offer users quality support to make it last into the future. This means that users will purchase and use your product, not a someone else’s ‘knock off’.

Finally, and most fundamentally, you believe in the philosophy of software innovation over and above proprietary licensed software which may make huge profits yet will cause user dissatisfaction and stunt the growth of creative ideas.

*Note: Nothing in this blog series should be construed as legal advice of any sort and is not to be relied upon as such.  It is the writer’s own research on publicly available material from the web, libraries and online databases.  You are encouraged to seek personal advice from a qualified lawyer or attorney before embarking on your commercial or other endeavour!

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