The GPL and Software as a Service

Linux Magazine’s article The GPL Has No (Networked) Future recognizes a point that I’ve been making for years: that free software license requirements to release source code are all triggered by the act of distribution, and that web applications, which are not actually “distributed,” are therefore not bound by these licenses. (See, for example, my 1999 debate with Richard Stallman at the Wizards of OS conference in Berlin.)

The article describes how during the GPL v3 discussions, there was a move to close the “SaaS loophole” by including some of the provisions of the Affero General Public License or AGPL:

the FSF supported the creation of the Affero GPL and attempted to integrate it into the early drafts of the GPL3. However, that plan backfired and the FSF not only struck the text that would extend the GPL to software delivered as a service but clarified just what “to ‘convey’ a work” actually means.

Mere interaction with a user through a computer network, with no transfer of a copy, is not conveying.

In other words, software delivered as service is now officially not covered by the GPL.

…the community forced the provision out as indicated in the FSF’s 61-page rationale document [pdf] that accompanies this latest draft.

We have made this decision in the face of irreconcilable views from different parts of our community. While we had known that many commercial users of free software were opposed to the inclusion of a mandatory Afferolike requirement in the body of GPLv3 itself, we were surprised at their opposition to its availability through section 7. Free software vendors allied to these users joined in their objections, as did a number of free software developers arguing on ethical as well as practical grounds.

The article concludes that while this is the right decision, it places real limits on the long-term significance of the GPL: “The future is networked. The GPL isn’t.”

At the O’Reilly Radar Executive Briefing on Open Source in Portland the week after next, we’ll be talking with Eben Moglen about GPLv3, with a specific focus on this decision, and the general issues of Web 2.0 applications and free software licenses.

On the one hand, I agree completely with Linux Magazine about the correctness of this decision. Web-delivered applications are just too important to too many people for the horse to be taken back to the barn. It would have been a death blow for GPLv3, making it impossible to adopt. At the same time, I believe that there are important free software issues to be addressed in the Web 2.0 space. On the radar backchannel, Nat wrote:

I keep coming back to Stallman’s printer, the origins of the GPL. He didn’t want to be left without the ability to improve and continue using software he paid for. An implementation of the equivalent ability for services is still not defined.

We talked about open services and open data at the last open source briefing. This is still an unsolved area for both open source and Web 2.0. I believe that there will come a time when we will need to rediscover for Web 2.0 the freedoms that led Richard Stallman to the GPL, but I don’t think it will grow out of the current crop of free software licenses. It will be closer, perhaps to Wesabe’s open data bill of rights.

Your thoughts?