Google and Free Software

by on June 29, 2007 · 15 comments

Via Luis, I don’t know if there’s a specific policy angle, but this talk by Eben Moglen at Google is interesting:

The really interesting thing about this talk, from my perspective, is that it illustrates the extent to which the free software community is driven by informal norms and the power of reputation. Moglen’s basic argument is that Google’s image in the free software community is important to its long-term success as a company, and that it is therefore in Google’s self-interest to voluntarily give back code over and above what the GPL requires as a way to build social capital.

I’m not sure if this argument is right, but if it is, I think it suggests why the hand-wringing over the specific terms of GPL v3 are probably overblown. The GPL is as much a social contract as a legal document. Going to court is an important backstop for its terms, but the primary enforcement mechanism are pressures from the hacker community. This is why hackers cared so much about making an example of Novell when it signed the patent agreement with Microsoft: they want to make sure that companies that violate the spirit of the GPL pay a high price. When the primary enforcement mechanisms are social rather than legal, the exact legal terms aren’t that important: if you behave in a way that’s contrary to the spirit of the GPL, you’ll have the same problems Novell did, regardless of what the letter of the license says.

By the same token, it is likely to be in Google’s interest to give non-essential code back to the free software community even though the GPL doesn’t specifically require them to as a way of building the social capital within the free software community. As the free software community grows, the exact terms of free software licenses may become less and less important as a robust set of social norms emerge that pressure companies far more effectively than a legal document possibly could.

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