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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Monopolism in viral licenses?

Expanding a little on my last post...

I'm just posing the following for the sake of argument...

If you believe that there should be no laws requiring code to be open source (except perhaps for government contracts, etc.)--i.e., that people should not be compelled to release source code--then, what about the ethics of a future (or even present-day) society in which virally licensed code like the GPL could effectively become the monopoly? I mean, if you consider it a freedom to be able to keep your code closed (even if you do not wish to exercise that right), then might it not also be an impingement on that freedom if the ubiquity of GPL code makes it non-competitive for you or others to compete against it with your own closed source code? Isn't that a monopoly, when one cannot effectively compete--the competition is too well established (and far along)? With permissive licenses, public domain, etc., you can at least build on them in a closed source way...

Anyhow, I'm certainly not against the GPL for those who choose to release their projects under it (I have myself), but I think it is worth asking... If compared in the light of a potential monopoly (whenever such code does take over the playing field in a given area), might the state ever seek--as they do in allowing copyright to expire or potentially appropriating (or is it expropriating?) patents--to revoke GPL code for the supposed "common good" (e.g., to force the code into the public domain--or, as with nationalization of former monopolies, expropriate its rights solely to itself)?


Incidentally, there is a passage in the Bahá'í Writings which states:

"And among the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh is voluntary sharing of one's property with others among mankind. This voluntary sharing is greater than equality, and consists in this, that man should not prefer himself to others, but rather should sacrifice his life and property for others. But this should not be introduced by coercion so that it becomes a law and man is compelled to follow it. Nay, rather, man should voluntarily and of his own choice sacrifice his property and life for others, and spend willingly for the poor, just as is done in Persia among the Bahá'ís."

('Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá)

(See also a similar quotation in the same work on page 115)

Clearly, our Writings advise against being fully compelled by the law of the government to equalize wealth completely (in other passages also), but the GPL is a license entered into voluntarily, as can be copyright--not a law mandated by the government (besides advising against it, the Baha'i Writings argued that communism could not work, though arguing that compulsory laws (progressive taxes) should be made for redistribution to remedy the extremes of wealth, and justified the non-compulsory, but spiritually obligatory religious laws mandating of the sharing of wealth in the Baha'i Faith (presumably 'Abdu'l-Baha is referring here to the Baha'i law of Huququ'llah). The issue I am raising is not whether GPL is ethical (because I think it can be), but whether it could become effectively monopolistic in certain areas, and thus within the domain of government to break it up. (By the way, I'm bringing in the above religious quotation for the sake of discussion and to indicate part of my own angle, not to impose the religious belief on others--the subject is inherently more tricky though when we talk about imposing the right to impose restrictions, and even more so when the restrictions are themselves meant to guarantee freedoms for all. Also, please note that I didn't use the quotation for justifying a specific position--only the Universal House of Justice can indicate the applicability of the Baha'i Writings in an official capacity.)


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