Free Software as Commons

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GPL and copyright-based commons

Roberto Verzola:

"Software has some unique qualities which may not be present in other information goods like music, and the difference between them also influences how they are owned/controlled/accessed/shared.

Software has source code, which is what programmers work on, and, separately, object code, which is what is run by the machine. The two are of course closely related. The object code is derived from the source code. There are little complications: the same source code may result in different object codes, and different source codes may result in the same object code, so I am somewhat simplifying. Thus, source and object codes are closely related but distinct. (Interpreted languages are another complication.)

For source code: As I understand it, GPL source code is a restricted commons while the BSD license on source code is a more open-access type of commons (I am of course adopting a definition of commons that includes open-access free-for-all resources). The GPL and BSD licenses are both considered free software, despite this difference. There might be other variations still in licences.

For object code: For both GPL and BSD, the object code is an open-access commons.

GPL has helped expand the software commons tremendously, but it needs a copyright system in place. Thus GPL advocates have to be pro-copyright for GPL to be enforced. This is a problem for people (like me) who believe that the copyright system itself should eventually be abolished, because it is *not in harmony with the nature of information goods*. I think one of the long-term goals in the information sector is to evolve non-monopolistic ways of remunerating intellectual activity -- ways that do not give anyone exclusive rights over creations, ie, the "right" to exclude others from enjoying the benefits of a non-rivalrous good). For me, GPL, BSDL, CC, shareware, freeware, etc. despite all their important differences, all encourage the public to copy and therefore they all, in effect, undermine the copyright system, which is a good thing.

So, my attitude towards GPL (and other licenses that require a system of copyright enforcement) is that they are scaffoldings, which are necessary and useful in the process of building the final structure. But when the edifice is ready (when we have evolved ways to remunerate intellectual work without the right to exclude others), then the scaffolding must be torn down." (Commoning mailing list, January 2011)