Why the GPL is unethical

2019-06-26

The other week, a Hacker News thread was discussing licenses, and the common question came up as to whether the GPL is truly “free” because it actually restricts what you can do with the licensed software, rather than giving more freedoms.

Proponents argue that the GPL has a long-term goal of making more software free for all, by limiting short-term freedoms of some, for the sake of encouraging the propagation of the GPL via software, like a virus. That’s why it’s called a viral license.

But that actually brings up an interesting point: the GPL actually limits people’s freedom. Proponents of the GPL argue, either knowingly or implicitly, that the freedoms of some now should be forfeited for the greater good later.

Freedom and liberty are a fundamental right. The author of the work has the liberty and freedom to license their software as they see fit, and limit what others may do with the software.

We see this exercised fundamentally in proprietary softare, when the user has very few rights, and even has to pay money, yet usually doesn’t even get to see or modify the software’s source code. But for most people, they are comfortable with this agreement. They don’t see it as a breach of freedom or liberty, but as a simple and just contract.

But the guiding principle behind the GPL itself is that everyone should have a right to access and modify the source code to any software they’re using.[1] They believe that it is a fundamental right, despite the fact that it is not honored by the legal system right now. They believe that they need to hack the legal system in order to work towards the goal of furthering this right, which is why the GPL is called “copyleft”.

In other words, they are using a system they fundamentally disagree with, in order to promote and propagate a new system, and they are doing this from within the new system, which they would replace the old system with from without if they could.

So the authors of software have rights, a fact which proponents of the GPL agree with. But they argue that the users of software have rights which should, in an ideal system, trump those of software authors.

This is a clear contradiction. In an ideal legal system, either the software authors should have the absolute right of licensing their software as they see fit, or the software users should have the absolute right of accessing and modifying the software regardless of the software author’s wishes and intent.

Experience shows that most people see nothing wrong with the current system: let authors distribute their work with whatever licenses they want, and let the market decide whether an author’s requirements are reasonable enough to cooperate with.[2]

Practical philosophical systems agree with this. When someone creates a work, they have the absolute right to do what they want with it, as long as they themselves do not break the law, and as long as the existence of the thing itself doesn’t violate the law either.

(To demonstrate the last point, we could understand why it’s against the law to create our own flamethrower, even if it never leaves our private property and we never use it: it’s just too dangerous for most people, thus a permit is needed.)

So the overall objective of the GPL is to overthrow, or at least subvert, the aspect of the justice system that rightly and justly gives complete authority to software authors over their works.

Thus, the heart of the GPL goes against common sense, experience, and the just liberty of creators over their creations.

[1] This reflects the views of the original creators and primary proponents of the GPL. There are probably outliers, people who want to spread the GPL for less strong reasons. But this is the main reason for its existence and propagation.

[2] I once wrote some software maybe 7 years ago that had a license that said that by using my software, you agreed to think seriously about your life and what your goals are and whether you’re living with integrity, something along those lines.

About

My name is Steven Degutis. I'm a Catholic and a father and husband, and to support my family I write software.

This site exists so that I can post questions and thoughts, which can then be posted to sites like Hacker News and certain subreddits for further discussion. My hope is to further our trade by by promiting discussion and creative collaboration.

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