Why I choose copyleft for my projects

Why I choose copyleft for my projects

Terry Hancock seemed to raise a few hackles when he presented case recently that "copyleft has no impact on project activity?!)". I'm not certain why, because it seemed he was just asking a question really (you'll note the question mark). In that piece he mentions the reasons developers choose a copyleft licence. As a -- somewhat small-time -- developer of free software this topic interests me. Terry made a few statements about why developers choose a copyleft licence as did Tony Mobily in his editorial for issue 20. So let me tell you why this developer chose (and continues to choose) a copyleft licence?

Why is a copyleft licence chosen?

Straight down to business then. This is a good question with a whole myriad of possible answers. Terry suggested:

"If you ask most developers, they’ll say they want a copyleft, because they want to avoid their work being co-opted or exploited (or even “hijacked”)."

While this was a reason, it's not the main reason I chose copyleft. It's not even something I directly considered when making my choice but it was a "bonus" side effect if you like. Terry went on to say:

"That implies an assumption that a copyleft license will encourage more people to feel more comfortable about contributing their work to the project."

This was definitely not a consideration when I chose a licence. I did not envisage anybody contributing patches or code because my projects are pretty small. Neither did I think of it as encouraging others to contribute. Honestly? I didn't care if they did or not. I was and am expecting to remain the sole developer on these projects. That's mostly because the nature of the projects does not demand a lot of developers. People have contributed patches and fixes though, so while this is another side-effect of my choice it was not a factor in making it. Terry's findings indicate that a significant majority of Sourceforge projects are single developer ones. So perhaps -- if they are like me -- the idea of people being able to contribute code was not foremost in the project administrators' minds?

A convenient truth?

Tony Mobily suggests it could be just a case of convenience:

"Paid or unpaid, company or private programmers, the question remains: why do they [write free software]? The answer, as amazing as it sounds, is “convenience”. It’s better, and more importantly cheaper, to develop free software."

Now we're getting closer. It was certainly a lot more cost effective for me to develop using free software tools and making the software available on Sourceforge cost me nothing but a bit of time. So convenience and cost did come into it. However cost did not play a part in why I chose to release my software with freedom built in and while hosting on Sourceforge means I have to use an OSI approved licence, that does not have to be a copyleft one. In fairness to Tony, he was talking about why people write free software and not why they specifically chose a particular type of licence but there is some correlation between the two.

Enough already - tell us why!

Okay cards on the table, this is why I chose a copyleft licence (specifically the GPL) for my projects.

  • Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  • Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs
  • Freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour.
  • Freedom 3: The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

Yes I know that freedom 3 is what Terry was talking about, but as I said it wasn't paramount for me. The four freedoms together and giving them to users of the software were paramount. I should acknowledge here that Terry did not say this was the sole or main reason copyleft was chosen. When I made my decision I particularly considered those who would deploy the software because that's the place in which I so often find myself. Both my projects are web-based so the web administrator is the target user. So I guess my decision was made on giving those four freedoms in largely that order of importance and to the web administrators.

  • Freedom 0 was a key factor in why I chose the GPL because I have encountered too many applications that told me I couldn't use their software how I wanted -- even though it perfectly fitted that particular need of mine. I wanted users of my software to be able to deploy it how, where and when they wanted.
  • Freedom 1 backed this up because it's what I like to do -- take something that works and make it work better in my situation.
  • Freedom 2 made my decision easier because it's what I consider to be human nature. When I find a good restaurant I tell people about it. When my meal tastes delicious I'll get my wife to try it - I share it (unless it's too tasty that is). When I find some useful software I want to share it.
  • Freedom 3: gave me an added bonus of "many eyes" and thus a confidence that errors and their fixes could be fed back into the main code.

So there you have it: this developer chose the GPL because of the freedom it gives those deploying the software. I don't claim mine are the only, best or most popular reasons but I am guessing that among single developer projects I am not alone in them.




Terry Hancock's picture

You've written a great argument for using a free license. But you didn't answer the question you set up: why do you choose a copyleft license?

Every one of your points would be met by the MIT, BSD, or Apache non-copyleft licenses (I'm not saying you don't have any reasons for using a copyleft, but you have not yet listed one).

In particular, if you don't expect derivatives to be made from your work, the copyleft will never come into force. As such, one must naively question why, with your stated motivations, you would take away a freedom (i.e. the freedom to make proprietary derivatives). Why burden the users with a more complex license and a legal clause that will never be needed, and can occasionally have unintended consequences?

Ryan Cartwright's picture

You’ve written a great argument for using a free license. But you didn’t answer the question you set up: why do you choose a copyleft license?

Sorry I guess it does seem a little confusing. The truth is I chose the GPL because it had copyleft as well as the four freedoms, it's just that the four freedoms were the main reason. The point I was trying to make was that copyleft really wasn't a major factor for me but it gave the GPL the edge over the other licences you mentioned.

In particular, if you don’t expect derivatives to be made from your work, the copyleft will never come into force.

I don't expect any derivatives to be made because I just can't imagine anybody wanting/needing to. The apps to my mind fill a fairly narrow niche. But by choosing a copyleft licence I am saying I'm happy for people to make derivatives. I am also making provision for those that do and ensuring those derivatives are not proprietary ( because of my personal stance on such licences ).

Will the copyleft clause ever be needed in this case? I don't know but it's there just in case.


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Ryan Cartwright's picture


Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and Identi.ca.