[ Prev ][ Table of Contents ][ Front Page ][ Talkback ][ FAQ ][ Next ]

"Linux Gazette...making Linux just a little more fun!"

GPL or BSD? Yes

By Mark Nielsen

  1. What is the GPL software license?
  2. What is the BSD software license?
  3. Which is better for you?
  4. Which is best for me?
  5. Conclusion
  6. References


What is the GPL software license?

The GNU General Public License is a bit lengthy (in my opinion) and tries to promote a "community" of programmers who share software freely and openly. It obfuscates the meaning of "free" and "freedom", since it really restricts the freedoms of people who don't want to openly share software that has the GPL license. Rick Holbert is suggesting we use the word "liberated software" instead of "free software". It still confuses me, because GNU software is not truly liberated, you can't so with the software whatever you want, but the word "liberated" is much better than the word "free". The GPL license forces people who make changes to the software to openly share those changes. Thus, it forces freedom on the "recipients" of the software, but not to the "programmers" who make changes to the software. It can be a little confusing, since it takes freedom away from the programmers, but strengthens the freedoms of the "recipients" of the software. In general, for people who wish to donate their software for the better of humanity, it seems to me the GPL license satisfies those goals because the software becomes open sourced and free for all people to use and to add to.

Sometimes, from a business perspective, you want to take software you can make proprietary so that you can create a product which has hidden value. If you close source software that has value, and your changes have value, then you can charge people for the software because they can't make the software themselves or it is too difficult and time-consuming for them to do so. You want to look at the BSD-style licenses under those cases.

In a different scenario, if you care more about service rather than software products, then the GPL license isn't something you should fear. For example, IBM is using Linux for various servers. If you develop a business model on top of GPLed software, you don't have anything to worry about. In addition, any software you create from scratch or you use that as a BSD-style license you can keep closed sourced running on top of your GPL software. There are still plenty of ways your business can use GPL software without threatening your business. Customers don't really care about how things are done, they just want it done. A good example is the crappy software produced in the most popular desktop OS. 99% of the customers who use that horrible nasty software don't know all the garbage put into it, and most of them wouldn't care. Look at all the people who are very happy to get patches to their "most stable and reliable version" of their OS, when really the logic is backwards. Shouldn't it have been stable and reliable from the beginning? And if the current version is the most stable and reliable and it crashes and has tons of bugs, then the previous versions were garbage? I keep on trying to emphasize to people that something that is more stable and reliable than garbage is still garbage that is only slightly more reliable and stable. It doesn't mean much. In business, it really isn't the quality of the product that sells, but if you meet the minimum requirements for people to use and you can sell it cheap on a mass market --- or if you can get a monopoly and brainwash people and congress with ads and money that your software is the best, when you know it isn't. Bottom line, if you are scared of the GPL license for business reasons, you probably haven't thought through your business model hard enough. The most popular Linux OS in the US isn't the best in the world, and lacks many features a respectable Linux OS should have, but it stays the most popular because it has market share and they improve with every version, which keeps their customers happy, even though the customers don't know how much better the software really could be.

What are the BSD-style Licenses?

FreeBSD Copyright Information has a variety of licenses. In general, you have freedom to do whatever you want with the software, as long as you acknowledge it came from the project you are working on. In some sense, you have more freedom to do whatever you want with this software, but when you make changes, you can "restrict" the freedom of others who receive the software you modified.

The BSD style licenses don't have any "pass-thru" freedoms. They don't promote "freedoms" for the recipient. This can be a beneficial if you wish to take software other people have developed, make a few changes, and sell the product, or just try to prevent people from understanding what you did.

When a non-programmer only understands what a piece of software does, but not how it does it, then you can sell the software to that person with good marketing skills, even if you really didn't do any of the work in creating the software. Take the most popular OS for desktops and you will get a good idea of a company which has no programming skills whatsoever, but are very good at marketing and selling garbage for software. Having the ability to include software from other developers (who knew what they were doing) without revealing the changes you make can be a very powerful if you can't program worth a darn but you are good a selling. From a business perspective whose goal is to make money (as all businesses are suppose to do), if you can use software that falls under the BSD-style incenses, do it. You can have better control over your OS and prevent people from copying a marketable product. The top two OSes for desktops have done this.

For the record, it seems like BSD programmers are very good at what they do, so I don't want to sound like software that comes from BSD programmers can be garbage. As far as I am concerned, as long as I can look at the source code, it isn't garbage because it can always be changed, but as soon as it does get closed sourced, then it becomes garbage, because I don't know what it is really doing. All the open-sourced stuff from the BSD-style licensed software it great.

Which is best for you?

There is one important belief you must understand: A LICENSE IS NOT BETTER OR WORSE THAN ANY OTHER LICENSE except from your point of view involving the goals you want to accomplish. A license is a foundation of how people are to behave, just like a government. From a business point of view. the US has a great government where money rules all. From a humanitarian point of view other governments have better ideas and goals. But neither government is better or worse if they accomplish the goals the people want. If the license does what you want it to do, then it is good for you, might not be good for someone else, but who cares about them. Thus, ONLY IDIOTS CLAIM ONE LICENSE IS BETTER THAN ANOTHER IF THEY DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOUR GOALS ARE. Once we know what your goals are with the software you are creating, then we can determine which license is best for your software. Even then, it is still an opinion open to debate.

Whenever I talk to BSD people, I usually get them to admit GPL is not a bad thing. How? As I have stated, licenses are there for people to use. Nobody is forcing you to put your software under BSD or the GPL license. Thus, IF YOU CHOOSE to put your software under the GPL, and don't mind people having full rights to the source code, why is that bad? You agreed to it, you don't mind, and you aren't looking to make profit off of it with some closed source version, and you really don't want someone to come along and make profit off of a closed source version off of something you worked really hard at doing when you didn't get a dime. GPL levels the playing field so that everybody has equal opportunity to make profit given the same software and they can't prevent anybody else from having an equal opportunity as well. Looks like good market driven competition to promote business and let the best people win. Again, you choose to put this software on an equal basis for all to use. If they don't want to share like you did, fine, they can invest the millions of dollars needed to create their own software. Nobody is preventing them.

Please license your software under more than one license. For example, Perl is licensed under the GPL and the Artistic Licenses. If you want your software to be used with other free software, you must license it for more than just GPL. GPL tends to not work very well with other free software licenses.

One criticism of the free software community, as far as GPL goes: they are "stealing" the word freedom. Question: Does a dictator have the freedom to be a dictator? Yes. Freedom has nothing to do with a "community". Freedom means you can do whatever you want whenever you want however you want. People should have the freedom not to be free. One thing that irks me, although I understand from a political perspective why they are doing it, but the FSF and GPL dudes tend to redefine freedom what they want it to mean, but really they are only looking a very small subset of freedom, not ALL freedom. They are interested is freedom for people to share open sourced software and in the community, but not the freedom of an individual to do with a piece a software however they wish -- such as making a closed source version of a GPLed piece of software. Hence, GPL doesn't really promote "freedom" in the true sense of the word freedom, but freedom for a community to use software. I don't like how they are redefining the word freedom and how some the the zealots won't even talk to you unless you use the words "free" and "freedom" in a fashion they understand. However, I suppose it is good from a political point of view, because it forces people to think about freedom and most people don't have time to think in our crazy 80 hour workweek schedules.

Now, for BSD, it is not bad either. It is meant for the programmers who like to create closed sourced programs. I understand why this is so attractive. I understand why this is important for some people, but let me raise a very important point about BSD which doesn't make sense from a philosophical point of view:

If people create software under the BSD license, somebody can take all the work created under that license and create a closed source version where they don't have to tell people what changes they made. Thus a whole group of developers can work for years creating a cool piece of software where a single person or company can "steal" the software by creating a slightly different closed source version, promoting it as the standard, and ruining any chance of the real programmers for the software from ever benefiting from it. I just don't understand why so many people want to work so hard to make others millionaires. GPL prevents this. It levels the playing field for all who wish to use the software. Everybody has a fair shot.

A clear case of how dangerous the BSD license is and how it promotes a virus from spreading around (that nasty operating system from a first-rate marketing but 2-bit programming company) around the world. Take a look at this disaster with Kerberos. What a horrible thing to do. For myself, when an evil nasty company corrupts a piece of software and there is no legal way to force them to be cooperative with the rest of society, I will boycott all versions of that software. I cannot afford to worry about different versions that are incompatible popping up all over the place. Kerberos is ruined, and I will never use it. Why is it ruined? The corrupted version has too much influence in the world, that is isn't worth my time using similar software knowing one day future versions can be completely closed sourced ruining any chance of the versions I use being compatible with the closed sourced versions. The threat of not being compatible with other businesses who don't care about politics is too great for me for me to use this type of software. It is on my banned list if I can avoid using it (hopefully).

With all the benefits and complaints I have about GPL and BSD, which is best to use? Either, neither, both. Just understand what the licenses do, and if you don't mind the consequences, great! Even though I really don't like the BSD-style licenses for my uses, if you don't mind other people taking your software and making closed sourced versions they can sell, then the BSD-style licenses might be good for you.

Which is best for me?

Which license is best for me? The answer is yes, both. However, I only use GPL. Why? I am so grateful for all the free software, I don't really create any software that can be sold (I usually create web scripts in Python), and anything I produce for the world I would want someone to take up after I am done with it, it makes sense for me to use GPL. I really don't ever see myself using the BSD-style licenses because I don't want the evil empire from taking my software and using it to make profit without revealing that they did to give other people the same shot at business. The reason why the BSD-licenses are also good for me, is because, it is an option for the future. I don't use the BSD-style licenses, but I am glad they are an option.


Anonymous Coward made a good point:
 I was all set to write a long essay in response, but most of the readers here would probably just appreciate a summary:

The GPL license is conducive to liberating software.

The BSD license is conducive to liberating people.

With the GPL license, the software maintains more of the freedom than the programmers who work on it.

With the BSD licenses, the programmers maintain more of the freedom with what they are allowed to do with derivative code.
I prefer to think of it as the following:

In conclusion, anybody who says one license if better than another is a simple-minded troll who doesn't understand that they can only make a judgment for themselves and not others. I really want to emphasize that these people need to be sterilized so that their DNA doesn't spread and create politicians, generals, and judges who like to make decisions for people in other subjects in life. I have complete disrespect and contempt for anybody who makes a decision for other people about software licenses, and limited disrespect and contempt for anybody who lets people make their decision for them. I don't mind theories about how licenses affect society, BUT DON'T CLAIM ONE IS BETTER THAN ANOTHER, because that is an opinion based on certain values, not a fact. I will accept as fact what you think is the best license for you, but not your opinion about what you think is best for other people -- that is just an opinion and theory.

There seems to be 10 times the amount of BSD people who hate GPL. I imagine that is because Linux is tens time more popular, but I really don't know. If FreeBSD was ten times more popular then Linux, I imagine you would have 10 times more GPL guys moaning than the BSD guys. For me personally, I am unaware of BSD software on a daily basis, and so, I have no reason to voice my opinions actively. I suppose I really don't like people who complain about the other licenses for two reasons:

Nuff said.


Thanks to Rick Holbert for suggesting how I can improve the article and for letting me know that "liberated" is a better term than "free" to use when talking about "free software" in the GNU sense.
  1. Slashdot discussion which contains a lot of good points and I think makes a good case for BSD people not to hate GPL.
  2. If this article changes, it will be available here

Mark Nielsen

Mark works as an independent consultant donating time to causes like, writing articles, writing free software, and working as a volunteer at

Copyright © 2002, Mark Nielsen.
Copying license
Published in Issue 75 of Linux Gazette, February 2002

[ Prev ][ Table of Contents ][ Front Page ][ Talkback ][ FAQ ][ Next ]